The debate over President Obama’s stimulus proposal is gaining traction as people come to see it as a grab-bag of special-interest projects the Democrats are trying to push through without scrutiny.
So when Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, proposes modifying the stimulus bill with specific plans of interest to specific industries or interest groups, such as his proposal for cheap mortgages to boost housing, he is taking precisely the wrong approach.
Americans are going to simply see his proposal as a plan to replace Republican special interests with the ones the Democrats took care of in their version of the bill.
Now is the moment for the Republicans to seize the high ground by insisting upon “interest-neutral” principles. Some of these can be good government rules, such as insisting that Congress adopt its own version of President Obama’s pledge to allow five-day online comment periods before he would sign a bill:
Sunlight Before Signing: Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.
All Republican Senators could issue a joint statement that there is simply too large a danger of wasteful and ineffective special-interest projects winding up in such an enormous bill and so they will oppose the bill unless its final version receives five days of sunlight before they are asked to vote on it.
Republicans could also adopt substantive standards by which the stimulus bill could merit their votes, perhaps echoing David Brooks, who echoes Larry Summers:
First, the stimulus should be timely. The money should go out “almost immediately.” Second, it should be targeted. It should help low- and middle-income people. Third, it should be temporary. Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”
In other words, the Republicans need to publicly articulate the standards a stimulus bill would need to meet to merit their support. The Republican critique of the Democratic bill should be, as Alice Rivlin, the former chief of the Congressional Budget Office, explained:
The anti-recession package should be distinguished from longer run investments needed to enhance the future growth and productivity of the economy…. there are two kinds of risks in combining the two objectives. One is that money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted. The other is that it will be harder to return to fiscal discipline as the economy recovers if the longer run spending is not offset by reductions or new revenues.
Or as David Brooks put it:
Democratic leaders merged the temporary stimulus measure with their permanent domestic agenda — including big increases for Pell Grants, alternative energy subsidies and health and entitlement spending. The resulting package is part temporary and part permanent, part timely and part untimely, part targeted and part untargeted.
The Republicans have a choice. If they fight for their favored expenditures they will come across as no more principled than the Democrats. If the Republicans, instead, insist on an intellectually defensible set of principles for evaluating the Democrats’ stimulus bill, they will come across as wise stewards of the public interest and the people’s purse.
In his inaugural address, President Obama attempted to dismiss arguments regarding the scale of government:
…the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…
Yet this stimulus bill may yet persuade Americans that an effective government — a government that works — is one that can achieve intended aims. Yet a government — or a bill — that attempts to do everything from stimulate the economy to promote alternative energy to increase college aid and expand access to the Internet will do none of these things well.
So the bigger the stimulus bill — measured not in dollars but in multitude of programs and aims — the less likely to achieve any of the stated goals. Thus big government becomes weak government.
By insisting on policies narrowly tailored to achieve intended aims — in this case stimulate the economy to get us out of a recession — Republicans will actually be the party of strong government, defined as a government capable of achieving its intended goals.
That leaves the Democrats to defend large but incompetent government, genuflecting to interest groups but failing to achieve anything. Not good for the Democrats and not good for the country.