Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, House Minority leader John
Boehner, R-Ohio, right, and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

With Nation on the Brink, Will Congress Turn to Politics as Usual?

February 03, 2009 11:30 AM
by Anne Szustek
The stimulus package, approved in the House last week, goes on to the Senate floor this week. But will add-ons and pork hold up its passage—and America’s economic rebound?

Pass the Stimulus, Hold the Pork

President Barack Obama voiced confidence during a Sunday interview with NBC News’ Matt Lauer that he will be able to persuade enough congressional Republicans to lend “substantial support” to his stimulus package, now worth some $900 billion, to get money flowing through the American economy.

As cited by The New York Times’ The Caucus blog, The New York Times’ Gay Stolberg writes that the president “was not specific about what provisions he might remove from the stimulus package to entice Republicans to sign on.”

Among the early components of the House bill to get trimmed were funds geared toward public health initiatives against sexually transmitted diseases and smoking, reported Politico Monday morning. Some Senate Republicans remain unconvinced that the stimulus bill has been trimmed of all its fat, however.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., voiced such concerns during this week’s “Fox News Sunday,” suggesting that the stimulus bill be completely rewritten. “When I say start from scratch, what I mean is that the basic approach of this bill, we believe, is wrong,” he said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Sunday that the bill may get voted down if what has been deemed as unnecessary expenditures don’t get cut out. “I think it may be time … for the president to kind of get a hold of these Democrats in the Senate and the House, who have rather significant majorities, and shake them a little bit and say, ‘Look, let’s do this the right way,’” McConnell was quoted as saying on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” by The Associated Press. “I can’t believe that the president isn’t embarrassed about the products that have been produced so far.”

Obama’s vision for the stimulus was a bill free of cost-heavy earmarks. But, as The Wall Street Journal put it, special-interest add-ons have been part of “the business-as-usual process for handling the legislation on Capitol Hill.”

Among the constituent-targeted plans in the bill is $3 billion in public transit upgrades for New York City and Chicago, as well as other cities.

Two members of Florida’s congressional delegation worked in federal workers’ compensation insurance exemptions for repairers of recreational yachts. Boat repair companies in South Florida have said that those working to fix boats used primarily for leisure are not as prone to the same workplace hazards as those who work on large craft.

Another stimulus add-on profiled by The Wall Street Journal was a House amendment added by Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., stipulating that the Transportation Security Administration purchase some 100,000 employee uniforms from American textile manufacturers. Kissell’s district has a large textile industry in which the congressman formerly worked.

Republicans have also been called out for fattening the stimulus with earmarks. For example: $250 million “recommended to repair NASA facilities damaged by Hurricane Ike and to reduce the significant backlog of maintenance and repair projects at NASA facilities nationwide,” such as Houston’s Johnson Space Center, writes Politico. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Republicans are pushing for private-sector targeted tax cuts to remain the centerpiece of the stimulus; although Kyl mentioned on “Fox News Sunday” that a GOP bone of contention was a tax rebate of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for married couples, even if their income was too low to have to pay federal income tax.

His fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said on Monday’s edition of CBS’ “The Early Show,” “There’s too much spending, too much unnecessary spending, not the right kind of tax cuts and no end game.”

Some argue, however, that infrastructure spending, such as for public transit systems, is a vital part of the stimulus plan, not pork. As Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said on ABC News’ program “This Week,” “I never saw a tax cut fix a bridge. I never saw a tax cut give us more public transportation. The fact is, we need a mix.”

Senate Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointed out on Sunday that tax cuts were integral to the stimulus plan, saying that $1 out of every $3 in the stimulus is to go to lowered taxes, geared toward helping lower-income households.

Durbin also stressed the urgency of the bill to prevent economic implosion: “We cannot delay this. … We can’t engage in the old political rhetoric of saying, ‘Well, maybe it could be a little bit better here and a little bit better there.’ We’ve got to pull together.”

In a move meant to maintain transparency, any project receiving stimulus funding would be disclosed on a new Web site, www.recovery.gov.

Background: The $819 billion stimulus plan

The $819 billion stimulus package, also known as H.R. 1, passed easily in the House. But the entire body of House Republicans and 11 House Democrats voted against the bill, which President Barack Obama is backing in a bid to rejuvenate the worst U.S. economy since the Great Depression.

The contents of the bill could shift slightly as it goes to the Senate for debate. But in its current form, the stimulus package includes large tranches for state aid; infrastructure and alternative energy; social spending such as education, health care, and food stamps; and room for tax cuts.

The House stimulus package includes allocations for $20 million to be spent over five years on additional food stamp benefits, and $43 billion expended over two years to bolster unemployment benefits. Should the legislation be ratified by mid-February, the bulk of the additional food stamp aid should be rolled out in April. The unemployment aid would allow jobless Americans to collect unemployment benefits for up to 33 additional weeks.

Parts of the stimulus that have garnered particular criticism include funding for pursuits that are considered to fall more within the Democratic agenda, including $50 million for promotion of the arts and $335 million for education about sexually transmitted diseases.

 Telling Reuters that he planned to vote against the bill when it comes to the Senate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said: “I’m convinced that they [Democrats] are seizing this as an opportunity to fund programs to a degree that they could never have funded before simply by calling it a way to create jobs.”

Opinion & Analysis: Parsing the stimulus

George P. Schultz, former U.S. secretary of labor, treasury and state, writing in a Jan. 30 Wall Street Journal editorial, stresses the need for America to take a long-term view of stimulus funding; namely to continue health and science research, shore up benefits for the elderly and tackle the country’s energy problems. “If we roll up our sleeves today, we will emerge stronger and with confidence in our future,” writes Schultz. “A competent, sustained effort to deal effectively with long-term issues is essential to reap real benefits from any immediate stimulus to the economy.”

A Seattle Times editorial also emphasized the need for health care and social spending to keep America afloat, and “shovel-ready projects, to use Obama’s term, have to be ramped up because that is the fastest way to create jobs.” The article inferred that Senate Republicans may be less apt to vote unanimously against the stimulus than their party colleagues in the House.

If it gets passed, will the stimulus be the economic cure-all as touted? Not exactly, writes Robert L. Samuelson in Newsweek. “One reason is that some of Obama’s ‘investments,’” such as the $4.5 billion electric “smart grid,” will take a long time to roll out, he argues. Samuelson also highlights the lack of potential economy stimuli in the bill, such as a $7,500 home-buying tax credit or $1,500 to go toward the purchase of a new car or truck. “Normally, these targeted incentives would be unjustified; today, they may be necessary expedients,” writes Samuelson.

In the past, government spending sprees have done much to boost economic morale, concedes Christopher Caldwell, the senior editor of the Weekly Standard, in a Financial Times column. He also lauds Democrats for removing some potentially divisive measures in the stimulus, such as the family planning funding tranche. In the end, however, he posits that the stimulus bill could be the “Democrats’ Iraq.”

“Like Iraq, it is a long-standing partisan project that is being marketed as an ad hoc response to a national emergency. It reflects the pre-existing wishes of the party’s most powerful interest groups more than the pre-existing wishes of the country,” writes Caldwell. “Democrats are now liable to be judged by the standard they created when they abandoned the Bush administration over the Iraq war: you break it, you own it.”

Reference: Guide to U.S. Economy


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