Fifteen days before taking the oath of office, President-elect Barack Obama met with congressional leaders of both parties to take their temperature on a proposed economic stimulus package. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the Republican whip in the House, suggested that the president put the text of the finished stimulus online for Americans to prod and investigate. The president agreed. Without a public airing-out of the bill, Cantor told a local newspaper, Americans might “fear Washington will do things the same old way without accountability and transparency.”
In the month since, Cantor and Republicans in both the House and Senate have grabbed hold of the issue of transparency and used it, with surprising effectiveness, to drive down support for the stimulus package and to drive a wedge between the president and his party.
“House Republicans did a superb job outlining what was in this bill,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) in an interview Thursday. “The more people saw and the more we highlighted this spending, the uglier it looked.”
Boustany highlighted the results of a rolling Rasmussen Reports poll on the stimulus as proof that the Republicans’ efforts were working on the public. In two weeks, the pollster has found support for the stimulus falling from 45 percent to 37 percent, and opposition rising from 34 percent to 43 percent. Other polls show higher levels of support for the stimulus, but Republicans are confident that they have at least turned what, a month ago, looked like a slam-dunk victory for the president, into a politically costly debate about spending and earmarks. Democrats who had hoped to secure 80 Senate votes for a stimulus are now looking hard for only 60 votes.
Some of the political problems of the stimulus bill—which Democrats said Thursday would narrowly win enough support to proceed to an up-or-down vote—can be traced back to the movement for complete transparency in government spending, and to the crusade against “pork” in spending bills. Both are causes that Obama supported in his Senate career, and has paid tribute to since becoming the nation’s 44th chief executive. Republicans, privately and publicly, credit the president for making it easier to rip apart the stimulus package and cast harsh attention on its controversial segments—or to make seemingly innocuous items the sources of talk radio outrage.
“If I were to give the benefit of the doubt to Obama,” said Andrew Roth of the Club for Growth, “and I do give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d say he’s been naïve about this. If I wasn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt I’d say he made a campaign promise that is hurting the Democrats in Congress, who have never wanted transparency.”
Roth edits the blog of the Club for Growth, the 10-year-old fiscal conservative political committee that came out early against the stimulus package. And Roth belongs to an email listserv, launched when the stimulus debate began, of around 100 movement conservatives and libertarians who share news about and strategies against the Democratic package. The listserv, whose members includes pundits like Michelle Malkin and members of conservative groups such Citizens Against Government Waste and the Heritage Foundation, is the latest example of a networking strategy that began mid-decade when activists fought to expose and slice out “pork” from spending bills. “Back then we were blazing the trail,” said Roth. “It’s become a powerful little force.”
As a senator, Obama played a major role in the anti-pork fight. In 2006 he co-sponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), a maverick Republican whose uses of Senate parliamentary tricks to kill earmarks brought historic new attention to the “pork” issue. The Coburn-Obama bill, which allowed taxpayers to track earmarks online, was one of the Democrat’s most-cited accomplishments in the Senate; in the final debate of the Democratic primaries, after Hillary Clinton attacked her rival for his friendship with William Ayers, Obama cited the pork transparency bill as proof of his bipartisan bona fides.
Late last year, President-elect Obama kept up the drumbeat on pork, spending and transparency. “The days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy,” said Obama in December, “those days are over.” Obama’s early-January concession to Cantor led to the January 29 launch of recovery.gov, a site where the stimulus—when it’s passed—will be published in a searchable format, so that anyone can track where the spending actually goes. Republicans have used all of this as part of the ongoing strategy to triangulate between the president and congressional Democrats.
“We’ve always said transparency before the fact is more important than after the fact,” said John Hart, Sen. Coburn’s spokesman, on Thursday. “You’re holding people accountable retroactively. Democrats are making the same mistake that Republicans did when we held power, and putting in all this stuff that doesn’t pass the smell test. The person whose credibility is going to be hurt by this, more than anyone else, is the president.”
The two most easily accessible sites that break down the stimulus are ReadTheStimulus.org and Stimuluswatch.org. Both have their roots, and their inspiration, in the anti-pork fights of mid-decade. The latter site is a project of** **Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University who, in 2008, published a paper on how the internet and “crowd-sourcing” could expose government abuses. The former is run by Rob Neppell, a conservative web consultant based out of Orange County, California, whose prior projects include the earmark-tracking site Porkbusters.org and the Victory Caucus, which brought together supporters of the Iraq War to defeat congressional supporters of a 2007 military withdrawal.
“I wouldn’t say our site has the goal of sinking the bill,” said Neppell on Wednesday. “I’m of two minds on this. I want the site to accomplish the goal of transparency. But my other position is that this stimulus is a bunch of junk, and it should not pass in its current form.”
Republicans in Congress, somewhat surprised at their success so far, credit their public relations victories on the stimulus to the work of researchers, inside and outside the Congress, who publicized small items in the bill and pounded them as wasteful spending. “What did it start with?” asked one GOP aid. “It started with the anti-STD provision. How many days did you see this thing popping up on Drudge? Every day until it was stripped from the bill.”
Conservative columnists, who are read widely within the Republican conference and staff, have taken note of these successes. On Monday,in a blog post at the Weekly Standard that made the rounds with House GOP House aides, Bill Kristol suggested that the stimulus package “could collapse” if Republicans demanded more transparency and more time to make hay out of the most controversial spending items. “GOP leaders should start insisting the plan not be rushed through before the one week Presidents’ Day recess, that whatever comes out of the conference committee… has to be posted on the Internet for 48 hours, etc., to prevent a rush to passage.”
On Thursday, Boustany called this an “excellent” idea. “I would like a chance to see many more bills 48 hours before the vote. There are a lot of discussions on both sides of the aisle about how the Democratic leadership has subverted the process.”
All of this has presented a quandary for good government groups that favor transparency but don’t endorse the Republican strategy against the stimulus. Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, favors a 72-hour waiting period between the completion of a bill’s text and the first vote on that bill. “To paraphrase Lincoln, I trust the American people, given the facts to do the right thing,” said Allison on Wednesday. “Let us see for ourselves, rather than take the word of a talk show host, what’s in the bill. If someone wants to distort what’s there, the comeback to demagoguery like that is: Who are you going to believe, him or your own eyes?”
Republicans don’t see demagoguery at work; they see Americans turning against a bad law as they learned more about it. “The Democrats threw everything they had in the bill,” said one GOP aide. “If they’d done a more thorough job of vetting that list, if they’d gone through and taken some stuff out… conservatives would have had a harder time making the case against it.” Instead, Republicans have pivoted from the president’s rhetoric about transparency and waste to make the kind of argument that Cantor made on a January 28 appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.
“You could call this the ‘porkulus,’” said Limbaugh.
“Right,” laughed Cantor. “Let me tell you something: it is porkulus. That’s a great description.”
*Correction: The original version of this story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rob Neppell’s name. We regret the error. *