It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that a Democratic president can ram an “emergency” spending package through a lopsidedly Democratic Congress in the midst of a recession, but it’s enough to impress the Washington Post. “Twenty-four days into his presidency,” staff writers Michael Shear and Alec MacGillis enthused, “Barack Obama recorded… a legislative achievement of the sort that few of his predecessors achieved at any point in their tenure.”
Swooning aside, they are closer to the mark when they write, “In size and scope, there is almost nothing in history to rival the economic stimulus legislation that Obama shepherded through Congress in just over three weeks.”
As a percentage of GDP, the stimulus is twice as big as the early New Deal. And it was indeed written and passed in a matter of weeks. Just three weeks to decide whether to spend $1.14 trillion of the taxpayers’ money (including interest set to accrue on the increased debt) during record federal revenue shortfalls. Just months after enacting a $700 billion Wall Street bailout and days after the Obama Treasury Department indicated it was prepared to ask for more. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has called it “a bill no one has read.” It similarly runs up a bill no one knows how to pay.
Of course, the new president doesn’t deserve all the credit or blame for the great “legislative achievement” now sending a thrill up reporters’ legs. If this were an album rather than a spending bill, its title would be The Democrats’ Greatest Hits. It moves the country toward national health care, including significant expansions of SCHIP and Medicaid. It doles out billions of dollars to state governments, whether their governors want the money or not. By creating a $3 billion “emergency fund” that rewards states for increasing their welfare caseloads, the stimulus takes a step back in the direction of welfare as we knew it — before Bill Clinton.
It is a polite fiction that the stimulus was primarily written by three moderate Republican senators with the help of some friendly neighborhood Blue Dog Democrats. The only Democrat who seemed to believe it was Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon). While six other House Democrats voted against the bill on fiscally conservative grounds, only DeFazio opposed it from the left. Apparently, tax cuts and even token Republican support gives him the vapors. “Been a lot of talk in Washington, D.C. over the last few years about the Bridge to Nowhere in the last highway bill,” he said in his floor speech last Thursday explaining his vote against the package. “But what we have with the passage of this bill is a lot of tax cuts to nowhere.”
“I’ve never met a tax cut that could build a bridge… I never met a tax cut that could even fill in a pothole! I never met a tax cut that could build a school,” DeFazio continued. “Three Republican senators insisted on a lot more tax cuts. They hijacked the bill because of the arcane, obsolete, and in fact discretionary rules of the Senate.” But that’s not how most Republicans see it. “This was totally a Democratic bill,” says a GOP staffer. “More Pelosi-Reid than even Obama.”
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) were essential to the stimulus measure’s final passage, but less so its overall direction or content. Atlantic Monthly senior editor Ross Douthat described the Senate moderates’ contribution as follows: “Take what the party in power wants, subtract as much money as you can without infuriating them, vote yes, and declare victory.” “The Democrats wanted a bipartisan vote for a partisan bill and then were angry when the House gave them a bipartisan vote against it,” says a senior House Republican.
Congressional Republicans were adamant that their constituents opposed the spending in the stimulus bill, which is why the House GOP twice voted unanimously against it and only three Republican senators ever voted for it. This is the flip side of Democrats’ victories in the past two elections. They have the votes and the raw political power to pass most of what they want. But they will often find it difficult to gain bipartisan cover because they have already unseated most of the Republicans who had a political incentive to cut deals with them. The surviving Republicans hail from more conservative districts and, the change mantra notwithstanding, they all won their elections too.
All things considered, that is not a bad position for President Obama and his congressional allies to be in. While the stimulus fight proved much more difficult than expected, they are still in the driver’s seat. The Republicans were effective in opposition, but less so at uniting around an alternative to the Obama administration’s slightly refurbished Keynesianism. While the GOP helped the electorate understand that the stimulus cost a lot of money and contained some dubious projects, relatively few Americans seem to sense that the country is toying with the return of stagflation.
Until they do, the political calculus will be simple: As the senators from Maine go, so goes the nation.