September 26, 2008
The Politics of Bipartisanship Stimulates Debate over Stimulus
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is not sailing through the legislative process quite as easily as many pundits had anticipated. The stimulus received no votes from House Republicans last week, and this week GOP Senators are joining the tumult. The bill has become embroiled in a few debates that are more political than economic, and is certainly demonstrating what President Obama means when he says he wants to bring a spirit of bipartisanship to Washington.
Yesterday, Senate Republicans proposed an incredible array of tax cuts and incentives--some trying to encourage consumers to make bigger purchases like tax credits for car and home purchases, as well as a big increase in plain tax cuts. The GOP has been in the media criticizing the spending aspects of the bill as not being timely enough or just generally less preferable then tax cuts (although it's pretty clear there's a healthy dose of ideology mixed into this economic-sounding argument).
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have also come together to try their hands at reshaping the stimulus. The New York Times reports:
"The effort is being led by two centrist senators, Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who say they would like to pare from $50 billion to $200 billion from the package. The final Senate vote on the stimulus package is expected late on Thursday."
The Nelson/Collins Amendment would, in effect, invert the ratio of spending to tax cuts in the stimulus plan. Over at his blog, Robert Reich offers some compelling analysis of the political maneuvering:
Regardless of your ideological stripe, you've got to see that when consumers and businesses stop spending and investing, there's only one entity left to step into the breach. It's government. Major increases in government spending are necessary, and the spending must be on a very large scale. ...A tiny portion of the details that made it into the House version should be stripped away because they seem like old-fashioned pork. But most spending in the bill is absolutely appropriate. My worry is there's not nearly enough of spending to fill the shortfall in overall demand.
Yet at this very moment, Senate Republicans are seeking to strip the President's stimulus package of many of its spending provisions and substitute tax cuts. Part of this is pure pander: They know tax cuts are more popular with the public than government spending, even though spending is a far more effective way to stimulate the economy. Another part is pure partisan politics: Republicans are emboldened by Obama's willingness to court Republicans...without getting anything at all back from the GOP. House Republicans snubbed the bill entirely. So, Senate Republicans say to themselves, what's to lose?"
It would seem that Republicans are trying to turn the tables on President Obama using his call for bipartisanship as their banner while they struggle to find a way to come ahead politically when all is said and done and the stimulus has been passed. It seems that they have identified Obama's calls for bipartisanship as a boon for their party--the GOP can oppose a bill or piece of legislation and then blame Obama for his lack of bipartisanship when it is not passed. But they have missed the crucial point--Obama sees bipartisanship as a means for tackling issues facing America, not an end to work towards in itself. And since Obama understands that fiscal stimulus is an urgent necessity for revitalizing the ailing economy, then if the GOP doesn't want to play ball on this issue, he's not going to sacrifice that economic necessity for the sake of bipartisan politics. Just listen to the President himself:
"I've heard criticisms of this plan that echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis, the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems, that we can ignore the fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive," he said.
"I reject that theory," Mr. Obama continued, "and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. So I urge members of Congress to act without delay."
Barack Obama has made it clear that he doesn't want to allow partisan politics to get in the way of working towards the common good and overcoming urgent challenges. And now he's demonstrated that he feels the same way about allowing a desire for more bipartisanship to distort good policy and sound solutions as well. As Obama knows, America's economy can't afford much more of this.