Whenever the federal government is handing out free money, it’s bound to trigger a lot of debate over who gets what and how much.

That was probably to be expected with the massive stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, which we have already criticized as having a heavy whiff of pork.

And given the hyper-partisanship that continues to reign both in Washington, D.C., and over in Madison, we’re not surprised to see legislation to restrict who gets what. A lot of proposed bills and legislation will never see the light of day—no matter what their merits.

Such was the case this week when U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., proposed preventing federal prisoners from receiving the $1,400 stimulus checks that even now are starting to show up in Americans’ bank accounts.

Steil, who represents Kenosha County in Congress, argues the checks will stimulate nothing—and there’s a large kernel of truth there.

“Regardless of ideology or political party, we should all agree that sending taxpayer-funded checks to prisoners has nothing to do with coronavirus relief. Prisoners currently incarcerated are not concerned about covering rent or losing their job due to COVID,” Steil said. “Sending money to prisoners isn’t COVID relief and it does not help people truly struggling to make ends meet.”

Steil is probably right on that. A bump in prison canteen spending is likely not going to buoy the economy. And Steil is picking some low-hanging fruit here by aiming his bill at federal prisoners who don’t have much public sympathy or political clout.

What Steil is arguing with his bill is that the stimulus checks are a scatter-gun approach going to all Americans and are not targeted to Americans who need it most. In our view, he is likely right on that as well.

There are good arguments to be made—for instance—that a retired couple who have not lost their jobs and have been, more easily than most, able to shelter at home without economic consequences. Yet, we don’t see Rep. Steil or any other politicians drafting legislation to carve grandma and grandpa out from the herd getting the stimulus largesse. Will that retired couple cash those federal checks? Absolutely.

Some would say Steil’s proposal is part political posturing, although we believe he is sincere in how he wants to see the money spent. As reported, the chances of his bill getting traction in the Democratic-majority House are slim. Plus, it flies in the face of a federal court ruling last fall that ordered the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service to send previous rounds of stimulus checks to incarcerated people after they had been withheld. That decision came after a class action suit filed by prisoners who argued that, they, too were American citizens.

Perhaps more effective, if it can withstand legal challenge, is the proposal by Wisconsin legislators, including state Sen. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, whose district includes part of western Racine County, to force stimulus checks to prisoners be first used to pay for restitution to victims of their crimes. To that we would add a garnishment for prisoners who have child support obligations.

That certainly makes some sense.

And it’s not a small amount of money—with 19,709 inmates in the state prison population, those $1,400 stimulus checks would total more than $27 million.

The GOP-controlled state Legislature is likely receptive to such a bill, and Gov. Tony Evers would be hard-pressed politically to veto it. Crime victims are likely able to make better use of stimulus checks, and have more need, than state prisoners who are sheltered in place in their cells.


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