At first there was the "Cash for Clunkers" program, followed by its "Clunkers the Sequel" extension. Then came a "Cash for Appliances" spinoff. And who could forget the 2009 first-time homebuyer tax credit and its blockbuster follow-up for 2010, open to both new buyers and folks looking to trade up in the real estate department? Should it now come as any surprise that Uncle Sam is planning to go deeper in debt to keep the franchise running?

At first there was the "Cash for Clunkers" program, followed by its "Clunkers the Sequel" extension. Then came a "Cash for Appliances" spinoff. And who could forget the 2009 first-time homebuyer tax credit and its blockbuster follow-up for 2010, open to both new buyers and folks looking to trade up in the real estate department? Should it now come as any surprise that Uncle Sam is planning to go deeper in debt to keep the franchise running?


Last week, President Obama unveiled details on the latest incarnation, dubbed "Cash for Caulkers." It would use uncommitted federal stimulus dollars to give consumers immediate rebates - up to $3,000 per household - for purchasing new insulation, windows, roofing, water heaters or other federally approved items to make their homes more energy efficient.


Obama's overall aims are tolerable enough - homeowners who use less energy pay less in electric bills, burn less coal and home heating oil, produce less pollution. But as with the like-minded predecessors of this program, the execution is all wrong. A federal government that rang up a $1.4 trillion deficit last year, that spent $3 billion on the "Clunkers" initiatives and $300 million on appliance purchases, that is looking at spending upwards of $25 billion on new subsidies for homebuyers, doesn't need to rack up another $6 billion here on the national charge card.


Let us reiterate: This is not money the federal government has. It is all being borrowed, which means it has to be repaid, with interest. Most consumers wouldn't be keen on taking out a loan from the People's Bank of Beijing to make home improvements, but that's just what the U.S. government is doing on their behalf in order to cover the costs here.


Just as important, nobody has ever adequately explained why it makes sense for the feds to incentivize this kind of spending. For one thing, consumers should already find these upgrades to be in their interest, with energy savings that pay them back for the initial cost in the long run.


Businesses, clearly hurting, can offer - indeed, have been offering - deals of their own to get customers in the door. When Uncle Sam throws the doors wide open, in walk folks who might have waited a year or two to make the same upgrades, but are only acting now because the U.S. government is greasing their palms. What may be a boon for retailers now is money they won't see later. This distorts the demand side of the free market.


Perhaps the most difficult thing to understand is why taxpayers should be in the business of fronting the cash for someone else's purchases. Again, like all the other programs, it fails the fairness test to force people who have acted responsibly on their own to subsidize someone else who may not have been so inclined.


As he announced the new program, Obama admitted it would likely face some opposition from lawmakers and taxpayers tired of the repeated incentives, tacitly admitting that it's beginning to look like he's gone to the well once too often. He has. Congress should recognize that, look past the feel-good nature of the proposal, think for a change about the long-term costs and offer up a resounding "No!" Sadly, that word has too long been missing from Congress' vocabulary.


Journal Star