President Barack Obama will sign the $800-billion economic stimulus bill Tuesday. Given big Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, its passage was never in doubt. It will provide stimulus to the economy (though not much in the short term) and will continue to be picked at, after the fact, by critics on both left and right.
A win is a win, and Obama must be credited with victory on the first big issue confronting him. But there were all kinds of sub-texts attached to the exercise which one hopes the new President has duly noted.
First, Obama's hopes for 80 Senate votes for the package were wildly unrealistic. His rhetoric, on the stimulus package as in his campaign, was that of consensus and bipartisanship. But words and friendly bipartisan photo opportunities will never be enough to create consensus where consensus is lacking on substance. On the first go-around, no Republicans voted for the House version of the stimulus bill and 11 Democrats voted against it. The Senate version cleared because three Republican Senators crossed over to support it. (Its opponents included Sen. Judd Gregg of Vermont, who during the same period asked that his name be withdrawn as Obama's Commerce Secretary nominee). No additional Republicans, in either house of Congress, voted for the final bill; 7 Democrats opposed it.
The worrisome thing was that, until late in the day, it appeared that Obama did not realize he lacked a substantive basis for bipartisan support. A bill containing immediate personal and business tax cuts, money to the states to cover unemployment and social-service costs, and targeted short-term jobs spending probably could have gotten the 80 Senate votes Obama had sought. Such a bill would have had greater immediate stimulative effect, would have cost less, but would have omitted a large number of long-term spending programs loaded onto the package. These longer-term spending programs, having little to do with stimulus in 2009 or 2010, were what spooked Republicans in both House and Senate. They also spooked so-called Blue Dog Democrats in the House — who number about 50 — but who stuck with Obama and their party on such a defining issue. Many Democrats held their noses and chose to overlook outright and inexcusable pork spending in the bill as flagrant as any of the "earmarks" Obama had said he would not tolerate.
The party-line stimulus bill victory will not be repeated, and Obama should not be misled into thinking it will. Everything hereafter will be more difficult, beginning with the Financial Rescue Package, Part Two. An illustration of future difficulties came when Congressional Democrats sent an early signal in the stimulus bill that they would not be easily handled. Sen. Chris Dodd introduced a provision, outrightly opposed by the Obama administration, capping salaries of executives whose institutions received federal bailout money. It remains in the bill and Obama will have no option but to sign it.
Another worrisome note came when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner botched last week his initial presentation of the Part Two package. I had expected that Geithner, flanked by White House economic czar Larry Summers, financial advisory chair Paul Volcker, and key congressional leaders, would unveil a comprehensive, carefully devised proposal which would have immediately jacked up financial-market confidence. Instead, he went alone to the podium, made a deer-in-headlights presentation of an incomplete package, and threw markets into an immediate downer. The package, it was clear, had not yet been thought through and Geithner was nervous about what he had in hand. The whole thing should never have happened.
Consideration of a final Part Two plan will be trench warfare, with both congressional Democrats and Republicans properly demanding satisfactory answers about a program that Geither suggested would cost taxpayers trillions before it ran its course.
Obama also has pledged to bring forward Social Security and Medicare reform proposals, as well as a comprehensive health plan — the latter presumably after he has found a successor to former Sen. Tom Daschle as HHS Secretary.
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