"State delegation maneuvers to send billions back home" — Seattle Times, Feb. 8
"It [the money in the economic-stimulus package] is just irresistible. Congress says, 'this is a freight train.' They have to jump on because there might not be another for years." — Larry Sabato, director, University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The story in Sunday's Seattle Times, you can be sure, was replicated in many weekend newspapers across the country, each relating its congressional delegation's efforts to get a big piece of the $800-billion-plus economic stimulus package which should pass the Senate early this week.
On an intellectual basis, Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Norm Dicks, and Gov. Chris Gregoire, all cited in the Times article, know that only a small part of the $15-20 billion they are seeking for Washington state projects could be truly characterized as "short-term economic stimulus." President Barack Obama, going in, said he would resist projects such as those they are sponsoring. Never mind. They want the money. If it hurts the national economy over the long run, that is something they will consider later.
The same scenario is playing out in other states — especially those with influential legislators in the appropriations process, such as Murray and Dicks. And therein lies the country's short-term problem. Not only do states and cities want outsize pieces of the package. So do interest groups.
For example, a big chunk of federal money is slated to go to states to sustain teachers' salaries and, thus, please the teachers' unions which form a part of the Democratic Party's base. Is money more greatly needed to help those out of work, losing their homes, or facing bankruptcy in their small businesses? Sure. But so what? These people are unorganized and lack political clout. The teachers have clout.
Obama's well-intended original stimulus proposals have been supplanted by wish-list spending which may, down the road, be useful. But little of it will contribute to economic renewal in 2009. Who would argue, for instance, that building power lines to wind farms, renovating ferry terminals, replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, speeding Hanford cleanup and national-parks maintenance were not good things for our state? But, if the federal money were appropriated tomorrow, their impact on jobs and economic growth would be little felt until the middle of next year or later.
Anyway, it is too late to turn back. The original House economic-stimulus bill has been improved by a bipartisan group of moderates in the Senate. Its mix of tax cuts and federal spending will have a somewhat greater impact on short-term recovery than the House version. (For an attack on the bipartisan compromise, read Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times, terming the centrist's compromise a way to make the bill weaker and worse.)
There still are some wild cards out there. First, attempts in the Senate at last-minute changes in the bipartisan moderates' bill could shatter the deal made over the weekend. Second, even if the moderates' version is the one passed, there is no guarantee that a House-Senate conference committee will agree amicably on a consensus version. Remember, all Republicans and 11 Democrats opposed the House version. At this point, only two or three Republicans from the diminishing pool of GOP moderates left in the Senate are expected to sign onto the Senate version.
This situation is not due to hyper-partisanship by either Democrats or Republicans on the Hill. The two parties' legislators have distinctly different visions of the correct stimulus to apply. Traditional back-scratching dealmaking will not be effective in bringing them together. They hold their views by conviction. That means Obama will have no choice but to proceed without the bipartisan support for the package which he anticipated, once thinking 80 Senate votes, for instance, might be forthcoming.
The chance to regain bipartisan backing — and both major parties still would prefer to rally on a bipartisan basis — will come in the Financial Rescue Plan, Part Two, to be presented midweek by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
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