Stimulus Plan in Search of a Plan
It’s clear now: When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to a podium just before 3 p.m. yesterday to announce a bicameral deal on the $789 billion stimulus package, the details of the legislation were murky at best.
Not only was no summary of the plan available, but, anecdotally, Senate negotiators — those in the room supposedly crunching the numbers — couldn’t pin down the specifics of the bill. Reporters yesterday afternoon scrambled for scraps of detail, mostly to find silence or shrugs from congressional offices. At 9 p.m., the Senate Finance Committee sent a release revealing the reason:
Updated scores on many elements of the bill remain pending, and policy staff for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the Senate Finance Committee, and the House Ways & Means Committee are drafting final bill language tonight.
On top of that, Senate Democrats seemed to have riled their House counterparts in the process. Reid took pains to emphasize that the House was very much a part of the negotiations, yet no House members appeared during the announcement. The New York Times lends a part of the reason:
House Democrats, angry over some cuts, particularly for school construction, initially balked at the deal and delayed a final meeting on Wednesday between House and Senate negotiators.
Democratic officials said Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt that Mr. Reid went too far by announcing a deal before it was vetted by her office and discussed by House members in an emergency caucus meeting, setting off the last-minute flare-up.
Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference that the delay helped House Democrats win some final concessions, including an agreement to let states use some money in a fiscal stabilization fund for school renovations. “There is no question that one of our overriding priorities in the House was a very strong commitment to school construction,” she said. “That’s still in the bill.”
To avoid detracting from a major legislative victory for President Barack Obama, Democratic leaders will downplay the significance of the intra-party tiff. Yet, there’s no denying: In the name of reaching across the aisle for Republican votes, Obama and Senate Democrats not only failed to get many votes (remember that the House proposal attracted zero Republican supporters, and the Senate version found just three), and also alienated liberal Democrats, but, substantially, the final stimulus bill is much smaller than the package many economists say is necessary to be effective. As columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post wrote today:
The Senate’s compromise bill was the essence of preferring the illusion of moderation over substance. By stripping out of the House bill significant amounts of fiscal help to the states, school construction money and other forms of spending, those so-called moderate senators who provided the key votes made the proposal far less stimulative. [Snip]
There is nothing wrong with a sensible centrism that tries to balance competing goods. But Washington has become too concerned with appearances and with calculating the distance from some arbitrary midpoint in any given debate. The sensible center should be defined by what works, even if that means discovering that the true middle ground isn’t where we thought it was.