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A Meltdown Too Big for a Comity Routine

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bipartisanship is safe and effective when used as directed. In the present circumstance, however -- dire economic crisis, hardheaded Republicans, time running out -- bipartisanship is doing more harm than good. President Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress can no longer afford to let comity defeat common sense.

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Six hundred thousand more Americans lost their jobs last month. If the loyal opposition chooses to obstruct economic recovery, those who hold power are obliged to use it.

Begin with the most fundamental question: Does the U.S. economy desperately need a massive stimulus, or not? There are economists who doubt that it's possible for the government to effectively stimulate an economy of such size and complexity. Those economists, however, are in the minority.

The most respected economic wise men and women of both parties believe a huge stimulus is needed quickly to keep a dire economic situation from sinking into catastrophe. Even most of the Republican senators who've been working so hard to sabotage the Democrats' stimulus package acknowledge that the nation needs one, just not this stimulus. Their position is either ignorant or disingenuous, and in either case it has been given far more consideration than it merits.

Normally, it would be insane to spend upward of $800 billion so fast. Given the hole we're in, however, it's insane not to.

Nobody said it would be easy to spend so much money in so little time. Obama's plan was criticized by some Democrats for including a heavy component of tax cuts; that's the Republican prescription that helped get us into these desperate straits, and voters made clear in November that it's time to try something else. But Obama and his economic team found that there were only so many "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects to fund, and while straightforward government spending packs a bigger stimulative punch, tax cuts would help to some degree. So, from the beginning, the plan accommodated Republican ideology.

The House of Representatives loaded up the bill like a Christmas tree as powerful Democrats found room for their pet projects. This was a good thing, not an outrage. Hundreds of millions of dollars for contraceptives? To the extent that those condoms or birth-control pills are made in the United States and sold in U.S. drugstores, that spending would be stimulative in more ways than one.

One of the most effective items in the House bill was $79 billion to be transferred to state governments, which are hurting; in California, our most populous state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is ordering furloughs of state workers. Any dollar given to the states will fly out the door by sundown. That $79 billion would have instant impact.

But in the Senate, the ad hoc "gang" of moderate Republicans (all three of them) and conservative Democrats cut those state funds to $39 billion. It's wrong to see this as the normal give-and-take of legislative sausage-making, the usual trek down a well-worn path toward the golden compromise that everyone can live with. This is not, repeat not, a time for compromise. Meeting in the middle, which the Senate sees as its role in our democracy, renders the whole exercise potentially useless. If we don't get enough money into the economy, and if we don't do it soon, we risk wasting a king's ransom on a stimulus that's too puny to stimulate.

This is not an issue where the answer is to be found in the "middle." This isn't a matter of left, right and center, it's a matter of yes or no: Does the federal government try to get the economy moving again, or not? This will sound ridiculous, but the fact is that the details of Obama's plan don't matter that much. If anything, many economists believe, the government needs to spend even more than Obama proposes.

Republicans are using this debate as a branding opportunity, positioning themselves as careful stewards of the public purse. This is absurd, given their record when they were in charge. It's also cynical. They know that some kind of stimulus will get passed anyway. If it works, they'll claim their principled intransigence made the plan better; if it doesn't, they'll say, "I told you so."

Obama and the Democrats have public opinion on their side and the wolf at the door. Republicans need to get out of the way -- or get run over.

The writer will be online to answer questions at 1 p.m. today. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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