Stimulus Package Needs Bipartisan Imprimatur
Democratic House and Senate leaders are already busy drafting a stimulus plan that's likely to approach $1 trillion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Bloomberg News this weekend that lawmakers are working closely with President-elect Obama's team and have consulted a wide range of economists, including people like Mark Zandi, one of John McCain's key economic advisers. Let's hope they're also talking to Republican lawmakers.
Obama has already stunned several Republicans in Congress just by calling them. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, hung up on Obama when he called to talk about immigration because she was sure it was a prankster. And Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, didn't believe the voice on his answering machine was really the president elect's.
But it's going to take more than a phone call to win significant GOP support for the stimulus, which will be the first and perhaps the most important bill of Obama's presidency. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio is on record saying the only stimulus needed is tax cuts, and other Republicans argue that the plan for massive infrastructure spending will run up the deficit without helping the economy.
Democrats may well have the votes to run roughshod over these complaints, but that would be a big mistake. At least, it would be if they don't try first to reach an accommodation. That means more than phone calls to stroke egos -- it means real consultation and a willingness to compromise on the final product. And of course it takes two sides for a bipartisan accord: Democrats will have to listen even though they have bigger majorities and Republicans have to accept that they're not in charge any more.
What's needed is a fundamental change in the way Congress has worked of late. Congressional Quarterly is just out with its annual vote studies issue, and it won't surprise anyone to learn that in 2008, the two parties were deeply divided on the biggest political issues. Obama vowed during his campaign to change that and he's showing signs of trying. Some Republicans are also showing signs -- including McCain, who yesterday criticized the Republican National Committee for using the Illinois scandal to attack Obama. But apart from the presidential campaign, McCain has always been more willing to work across the aisle. The more important question is whether the real partisans on both sides are ready to work together.
The stimulus will be the first test. Obama wants to use it to further much of his domestic agenda -- from health care to alternative energy -- and so it's no surprise that Republicans are wary. The issue, though, is whether they will let their differences turn the stimulus into a partisan brawl. That would hurt in more ways than one. The success of the stimulus will depend almost as much on its psychological effects as its economic impact. Showing the country that some measure of congressional cooperation is possible would go a long way to calming the markets and consumers.