Stimulus: Sanity returns -- briefly -- to the debate about fixing the economy

According to a report in this morning's Times, the Democratic majority is "short of the 60 votes needed to advance a $161 billion economic stimulus package toward approval in the Senate."

You may recall from civics class that it used to require a simple majority to pass most laws in the federal legislature. But since 2006, the Democrats have adopted a new theory of democracy under which no law can be advanced that is not veto-proof. The practical effect is to have the legislature held hostage by the president.

Some Democratic senators insist that the House stimulus plan, adopted under the super-majority theory, is a lousy bill that will benefit people who don't need help, hurt people who do, vastly increase the deficit, and not do much of anything for the economy.

Instead of crafting a responsible bill to address a perceived crisis -- and perhaps first determining whether there is a crisis, the House Democratic leadership, as is now its custom, caved in to the Bush administration's aversion to any economic program not made up primarily of tax cuts and payouts to the rich.

The senators are right. The House bill is pretty bad.

It creates humongous deficits at a time when we are already consumed with how we are going to continue to fund essential existing programs like Medicare and Social Security, let alone find the resources for important new efforts, such as universal health care. Because it consists largely of tax cuts, the resulting deficits will cause long-term interest rates to go up, an outcome more likely to further slow down the economy than to stimulate it, and add billions to the deficit by greatly increasing the cost of servicing the national debt.

And, of course, by agreeing not to raise revenues to pay for the expenditures, the Democratically controlled Congress is irresponsibly compounding an already catastrophic problem, passing it on to future generations of Americans and, more to the point, future generations of politicians.

Most important, as the latest sally in the administration's class war, the package continues the policy of redistributing national resources to those at the wealthiest end of the economic spectrum, not only sending money in the wrong direction but in this case dispatching huge amounts of it there. The average tax dividend dollar will go to superrich recipients whose primary source of income is taxable dividends, in other words, to people who not only don't need it, but, belying the rationale for the stimulus, to people who will have no incentive to spend it.

Conversely, the House proposal doesn't include immediate infusions of cash into the economy, as an expansion of the food stamp program would do; doesn't offer help to those who would be hurt by a recession, as an extension of unemployment payments would do; doesn't help state governments -- already suffering from declining tax revenues -- that bear most of the costs of social programs; and doesn't include expenditures -- on infrastructure projects, for example -- that would create jobs and improve the longterm strength of the economy.
President Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, and the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have all urged the Senate to adopt a slightly cheaper version of the stimulus plan that was approved by the House on Tuesday.

But Senate Democrats, including the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, have insisted on pressing ahead with their own package [is that sound the Times tsk-tsk-ing?], which was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Only 3 of the 10 Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the plan, though — an early sign that the bipartisan cooperation that drove negotiations over the stimulus plan in the House was crumbling in the Senate.

The Senate stimulus plan would cost nearly $200 billion over two years, about $30 billion more than the House package [tsk-tsk] — and Democrats said they still intended to offer amendments that could add even more to the cost [tsk-tsk].

Sixty votes are needed under Senate rules to shut off debate on a measure and move to consideration of the measure itself, a step known as cloture. Without cloture, opponents of a Senate bill would be able to prolong the debate indefinitely.
This pathetic charade is an example of the behavior that has led to the public's contempt for the legislature. The senators know as well as you do that the House bill is seriously flawed, but in an election year looking responsible trumps being responsible -- we have to do something, even if we all know it's the wrong thing -- and because "(w)ithout cloture, opponents of a Senate bill would be able to prolong the debate indefinitely," the leaders of the Senate have already indicated they, too, are ready to cave.

Here's Democrat heavyweight Charles Schumer, New York's senior senator:

“If it fails, we’ll pass the House bill. But we’ll give it a try.”

Wow. The Republicans must be quaking in their Berlutis.

In case you're keeping track, here's another name you won't find in the next edition of Profiles in Courage:
Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader, said that Democrats’ strategy was, first, to seek approval of the Senate’s stimulus bill along with a small number of amendments. If that failed, he said, they would then turn to holding a series of votes to add components to the House’s version of the bill, and then ultimately call a vote on that plan.

The Democrats’ willingness to publicly discuss such a fallback strategy verged on the waving of a surrender flag: It indicated that they knew Senate Republicans could block the more expensive Senate stimulus plan, and that any delay in approving the House package would be dangerous politically, since it would leave the Democrats vulnerable to charges that they were impeding efforts to prop up the economy.
As it emerged from committee, the Senate bill that Durbin and Schumer have already abandoned is a big improvement on the Bush-league House bill. For example, the Senate proposal provides payments of $500 each -- not rebates, but cash that in most cases will be spent immediately -- to about 20 million low-income Americans over the age of 62 who survive on Social Security benefits, and to about 250,000 veterans dependent on payouts from a grateful nation. In a perfect example of what's wrong with the lower body's proposal, neither of these groups would receive a penny from the House.
Both stimulus plans are meant to encourage spending through a combination of income-tax rebates, tax incentives for businesses, and stipends for tax filers who report at least $3,000 in earnings but do not pay enough income tax to qualify for rebates.

The House plan was forged in swift negotiations among Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Boehner and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. In those talks, Ms. Pelosi ultimately [swiftly, is more like it] dropped Democratic demands that unemployment benefits be extended and food stamps be increased, in favor of sending rebates and stipends to 35 million low-income families that would not have received them under a Bush administration proposal.
You are supposed to be excited and uplifted by the sight Democrats and Republicans voting in large numbers for the same bill, as if bipartisanship and not policy was the point of this is exercise. We are expected not to notice that, like every outbreak of bipartisanship in Washington, the legislation is a by-product of the Democratic majority's abdication of its responsibilities in the face of intransigence by the Bush administration. The unpopular, failed, corrupt, incompetent, lame-duck Bush administration.

Instead of fighting for better policy, the Democrats have decided to play political games with the legislative process. Having conceded ultimate victory to the conservatives, the Democrats hope to use the committee's bill and amendments from the floor to make "some Republicans potentially [pay] a steep political price, by voting against amendments that would be popular in their home states."
For instance, the Democrats were nearly certain to propose an amendment to increase government assistance for rising home heating costs and other energy expenses — a program for low-income families that is hugely popular in the Northeast. Republican Senators up for re-election this year, like Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, would be forced to choose between casting a yes vote that would break with the Republican leadership or a no vote that would be unpopular with their constituents.
Not only is the Democratic plan cynical, it's a loser. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell already knows he's going to get the House bill. Do you think he won't free up his team to vote in favor of amendments their constituents favor? Sununu, for example, can vote for the heating fuel subsidy, thus gaining an advantage with the huddled masses in New Hampshire, then vote against the final version of the Democrats' bill in the name of, oh, i dunno, "fiscal responsibility."
Praising the House bill, Mr. McConnell said: “Republicans and Democrats rose above politics and put the people and our economy first.”

He continued: “Then all eyes turned to the Senate. Would we put our individual interests aside, or would we throw the whole plan into jeopardy by loading it down with gifts for anybody who came calling? Apparently the temptation for giveaways was too great for some to resist."
This is how "bipartisanship" works. The White House -- not the legislature -- decides what is "acceptable." Under the 60% theory, the majority introduces legislation that will head off the threat of a veto or, in the Senate, a filibuster (the 66% theory, I guess). I stress threat. Bush has vetoed only eight bills, and you could run a decent Democratic campaign for office on most of them (stem cell research, children's health insurance, health and human services expenditures, water resources, a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq). And while there have been a large number of cloture votes in this session, the Senate majority has not forced the minority to hold real, public filibusters with whatever political consequences such confrontations might hold. All you really need to do to intimidate the Democrats is to frown at them.

In opposing improved legislation, McConnell, whom the Times, as is its custom, gives the most ink and the last word, caps a recitation of the usual refrain about Democratic profligacy with a final tip of the hat to the bi-partisan, i.e., Bush-certified, House proposal.
“As soon as the bill hit the Senate, it started to look a lot like Christmas over here. Chairman Baucus added 10 new provisions before the bill was even considered in committee. Three more amendments were added in the committee. You could almost hear Bing Crosby’s voice coming out of the Finance Committee.

“So the stimulus train is slowing, grinding to a halt here in the U.S. Senate, all of which only reinforces my view that the only way we’ll get relief to the people soon enough for it to work, will be to insist on speed over spending. And the only way to do that is to pass the bipartisan, House-passed bill.”
Bi-partisanship is a smoke screen used to obscure the fact that -- forget Democrats or Republicans -- the Congress is dominated by a conservative majority.

How about this instead:

Pass the best bill you can. If Bush wants to veto it, so what? If the Republicans want to uphold the veto, same thing. Whether they succeed or fail, go to the American people in November and let them decide. Draw a clear line between the party of the people and the party of the rich. If they have an unambiguous understanding of whom they're voting for, no matter how it turns out, at least Americans will get the government they deserve.

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