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The House's Modern-Day Hoovers

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Republicans are given to saying and doing the darnedest things.

Remember last fall when House Republicans, led by Minority Leader John Boehner, whined that they were forced to kill the Bush administration's bank bailout bill because Speaker Nancy Pelosi had given a speech that hurt their feelings?

Well, they are back with another howler -- and a reminder why the GOP is no longer the nation's dominant political party.

This week, House Republicans voted in lock step against President Obama's economic stimulus package, using as one excuse their deep concern about the impact of government spending on the future debt burden of America's "children and grandchildren."

The GOP's distress is little more than a political contrivance. Were the Republicans really putting children first, they would have supported a stimulus plan that sought to provide money to communities and people, create jobs, and put homeownership within reach of working families.

Even after Democrats dropped some spending provisions that Republicans found distasteful, not one House Republican voted for Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This is not to say the House-passed legislation is golden.

"Buy American" riders tacked on the bill are dead weights. They call to mind the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, Herbert Hoover's protectionist measure aimed at reducing foreign competition. Smoot-Hawley sparked a global trade war that prolonged the Great Depression.

Candidate Obama waffled on "Buy American" provisions; President Obama can't. He should suck it up and tell the Senate to trim the riders.

The Senate can also improve the bill by changing tax and infrastructure measures to pump money into the economy faster. But fashioning a good, broad-based stimulus plan calls for bipartisan cooperation. The House GOP passed up the chance. With the economy tanking, Senate Republicans should put country first and get on board.

Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell got it right when he accused his Republican colleagues in a news release of being "more than willing to let right-wing radio shock jocks drive their political discourse, even after the president traveled to Capitol Hill to listen to and work with them in a genuine attempt to start his administration off on a bipartisan note."

Were House Republicans less obsessed with pandering to the right, they would have quickly noticed how today's crisis is affecting children.

Reporters use "corporate layoffs" as shorthand for job cuts in the banking and auto industries, and by companies such as Home Depot, Sprint Nextel and Starbucks. The term, however, doesn't come close to capturing the extent to which pink slips devastate households with mouths to feed.

Behind those huge, sterile unemployment numbers are children, shaken by the despair in the faces of laid-off moms and dads.

Grandchildren are hearing whispered dinner table conversations about grandparents whose losses in 401(k) savings will force them to postpone retirement.

And young adults aren't blind. They see the closed stores in the mall. They have classmates who are losing their homes because the mortgages can't be paid. They hear the stories of neighbors looking for work and not finding any.

Nearly 5 million people are receiving unemployment insurance benefits. "These are not just numbers on a page," Obama said the other day. They are working people with families "whose lives have been disrupted."

The pain of this recession was apparently lost on Boehner and his House Republicans.

Their public fretting over the future impact of deficits on today's children and grandchildren is disingenuous.

In truth, what really gets them hot and bothered is the thought of government taking on more responsibility to fight this deepening recession, and the huge amount of public spending it will take to pull the economy out of the doldrums.

It so happened that the Republican standard-bearer in the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, felt that way, too.

Hoover's distaste for government, and his belief that business was the answer to the country's economic tailspin, got Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected president in 1932.

In their slavish devotion to Hooverism, today's Republicans are repeating the mistakes that banished their party to the political wilderness in the '30s.

Boehner and his colleagues should worry less about what today's children and grandchildren will inherit from an Obama administration and spend more time trying to undo the present-day lessons taught by business chieftains, to wit, that:

· Need and greed are synonymous. (How else do they give themselves $20 billion in bonuses as their companies sink in a sea of red ink?)

· Government bailouts trump creating and saving jobs.

· Business tax credits are superior to investment in programs that repair holes in the social safety net.

Anything's possible, but there's a good chance that today's children and grandchildren will look back from adulthood and see an era in which a Democratic president and Congress tried, at least, to help their families and communities. And, it's a good bet they will appreciate the effort.

There's also a chance that those children will end up thinking no more of today's comfortable-living Republican Party than their grandparents and great-grandparents thought of Herbert Hoover and his well-off crowd.

House Republicans can also get cutesy about that.

kingc@washpost.com

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