Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Capping That Package

President Obama and congressional Democrats may have learned that size does matter when it comes to the economic stimulus package. The larger arguments on the the huge billion spending bill is on its basic efficacy: Will that amount of money be able to get into the economy in a quick enough time to warrant the expenditure? Over the weekend, a Goldman Sachs study suggested the answer was "no":

"Preliminary estimates imply that of the $825 billion Congress is considering, only $250 billion will make it into the economy in the current calendar year. This could still change as the package works its way through Congress, but these estimates highlight the political and practical challenges in enacting an effective fiscal package, particularly in 2009."

But, that isn't what congressional Republicans started focusing on. As House Republican Leader John Boehner noted, conservatives seem more inclined to highlight one specific item in the bill: The $250-300 million (with an "M") targeted for contraceptives and various "family planning" as it is occasionally known. Simultaneously, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended this expenditure. As amusing as it might be to hear anyone with the name "Boehner" (even if it is pronounced 'Bay-ner', the fact is Republicans know when they've got a winning issue here.

This is a great example of the odd fact about big government-spending bill is: It's often not huge numbers that cause public opinion to sway one way or another. It's actually a smaller amount of money -- spent in a way that the public deems foolish -- that creates doubts on the overall wisdom being placed in the larger amount.

And the GOP has seen this script before: Back in 1994, before the election, Democrats were steering through a $30 billion crime bill. It was, generally, popular (though the Congressional Black Caucus had some problems with the increased punitive measures in the legislation). However, just before Congress headed into the Labor Day recess, conservatives seized on one item: $40 million for the creation of "midnight basketball leagues" in inner-city areas.

It was part of the "crime-prevention" part of the bill. It's inclusion in a crime bill hit many in the public the wrong way. House Republicans felt empowered to vote against the bill because it was in there. The CBC still felt the overall bill was too punitive. This odd left-right opposition caused a complete revolt in the House of Representatives. As a result, the procedural rule guiding debate on the bill -- usually a pro forma vote -- was voted down on the House floor. The failure to pass the bill became symbolic of the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic Congress -- with Bill Clinton as president. Two months later, the Republicans won Congress.

Circumstances are different today: For one thing, Democrats are on an upswing and aren't defending the way things have been done for the previous 40 years.

Still, the events of 15 years ago are instructive: Just $40 million was enough to help bring down a $30 billion bill. Could $250 million do the same to an $825 billion package?

No, but only because Obama wasn't going to give it the chance: Tuesday, he directed congressional Democrats to yank the contraceptive money. Why give new meaning to the phrase "stimulus package"?

Unless Democrats want a repeat, it might behoove them to isolate and eliminate any other such easy targets.

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