Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Myth of the Bi-partisan Imperative

According to, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has played an instrumental role in significantly reducing the scope of unemployment-fighting measures so as to obtain bi-partisan support. The current bill being considered by Congress - one shaped by Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, then further watered down by Reid himself - would do the following (the following is taken directly from

- Fund highway and transit programs through 2010.
- Exempt employers from Social Security payroll taxes on new hires who were unemployed.
- Extend a tax break for business that spend money on capital investments like equipment purchases.
- Expand the use of the Build America Bonds program, which helps states and municipalities fund capital construction projects.

While all of these measures are likely to yield positive results, none are even close to sufficient to meet our floundering economy's needs. Among proposals that have been discarded are:

- Extending the deadline to file for federal unemployment insurance and the subsidy for Cobra health insurance, which expire Feb. 28.
- Extending many tax and health care provisions from last year.

The problem, of course, is that even THOSE measures are inadequate. For a true economic recovery to take place, President Obama and Democrats in Congress need to create a latter-day WPA, similar to the one Franklin Roosevelt put in place more than seventy years ago to alleviate the suffering of the Great Depression. Simultaneous to this, Obama and the Democrats in power need to significantly increase stimulus spending in every sector of the American economy, so as to infuse much-needed capital in industries that are currently declining so as to increase their profitability and thus provide them with incentives to create jobs. Just as important is implementing measures that force our banks - who are already owned by the taxpayers, for all intents and purposes - to offer loans to small businesses and other job-creating enterprises, rather than permitting their executive offices to continue to act as if they are private corporations (which they aren't). Combining this with intelligent measures such as the Schumer-Hatch tax credit, the Employee Free Choice Act (to re-empower our labor unions), and the various proposals already being bandied about would go very far in bringing about a meaningful recovery.

The problem, of course, is that Barack Obama and Harry Reid and other powerful Democrats fear that measures which are too aggressive will be opposed by Senate Republicans. I emphasize the term Senate in "Senate Republicans" because the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who are not in danger of being stymied by a GOP filibuster, have already passed an excellent $154 billion job creation bill, in addition to a $13 billion extension in unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on February 28th of this year. While not perfect, the House of Representatives' job bill would do the following:

The bill would take $75 billion from the remaining Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money to fund $48 billion in infrastructure spending, as well as send about $27 billion to the states to prevent the layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters, according to sources within the House Democratic leadership. Some funds would also go to providing credit for small businesses.

The measure would pump more than $35 billion into highways and mass transit, as well as $2 billion for clean water projects and another $2 billion for the building and repair of affordable rental homes and public housing. The rest of the infrastructure funds would be spent on school construction and repair...

The jobs bill also contains roughly $79 billion in emergency safety net spending. It would provide a six-month extension to file for unemployment benefits and the COBRA subsidy, and would lengthen the health insurance coverage to 15 months from nine months. It would also provide more Medicaid money to the states, an issue of great concern to them as the ranks of those looking for state-funded health coverage swells.

Although the Democrats were able to rally Republicans overwhelmingly to their side in passing the unemployment benefits extension, they were unable to do the same thing for their job creation bill (which is still insufficient, although nevertheless capable of having a highly beneficial effect on the economy). Republicans and conservative Democrats joined together to oppose the bill, and Pelosi's Democratic majority squeaked it through last December by a 217-212 majority.

Of course, as Obama and Reid would no doubt point out, House Democrats had the inestimable advantage of not having to face the threat of filibuster. This archaic parliamentary tactic, which is unique to the United States Senate, permits any individual legislator or group of legislators from stopping voting on a bill he/she/they oppose(s) by talking indefinitely, presumably until the Senate abandons the unwanted measure by crying "Uncle". According to Senate rules, a filibuster may only be stopped by a vote of three-fifths of all Senators present to overturn it. That is why the House of Representatives can pass a bill highly unpopular among Republicans and conservative Democrats without possessing a three-fifths majority (technically their majority was just under 50.6%) while the Senate is unable to push one without the magic number "60" on their side. Considering that there are only 59 Democrats in the Senate right now - many of whom, like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, lean more to the right anyway - Obama and Reid have come to the conclusion that they have no choice but to craft a bill that will appeal to all conservative Democrats and at least some Republicans. After all, it is taken for granted that a filibuster is unthinkable.

It is on this last point that I part ways from the leaders of my party. If there is one lesson that George W. Bush should have taught Democrats, it is that the best way to deal with an opposition party is to coerce their acquiescene with your agenda by threatening to vilify them if they refuse. Despite having far smaller majorities in the Senate than those currently held by Democrats, George W. Bush was nevertheless able to force through countless measures disliked by our party - including the USA Patriot Act and an authorization to declare war against Iraq - by convincing Democrats that opposing his agenda would cause them to be branded as politicizing America's national security or as being "unpatriotic" (a tactic still employed by Dick Cheney today).

President Obama and the Democratic Party should take a page from Bush's book (the only one he ever read) and do the same thing. As I write this article, unemployment remains above 10% (and approaching 20% if you include those who have stopped looking for work and those who only work part-time), with wages falling and our economic infrastructure crumbling all around us. People aren't just angry; they are afraid, as frightened as they were in the post-9/11 climate which Bush tapped into to realize his agenda, and that fear can be used as a powerful weapon with which to force Republicans to play ball. If they threaten to filibuster a jobs bill that would actually put people back to work, raise wages, and force banks to start serving the American people again, then why not let them do so? Why not have the image appear on television, day in and day out, of Republicans vociferously speaking out AGAINST measures that could bring about the end of our long national nightmare?

Of course, Republicans and their elaborate right-wing propaganda machinery (FoxNews, The Wall Street Journal, the organizations which orchestrate the Tea Party movements, and so on) would try to spin their actions as defending America's liberties against excess government spending and power. Let them. If President Obama and Democrats take to the streets and aggressively stump in favor of their measures, vilifiying Republicans along the way as putting petty politics above the welfare of their nation (which, incidentally, is exactly what they would be doing), they can allow the American people to choose a side.

I don't deny that this would be a risky gambit - if the Republicans should benefit from the American people's sympathies, or if the Democrats should for any reason blink first, it would result in the empowering of the GOP at the expense of the president and Democrats everywhere. That said, polls do not suggest that this would happen. Despite the shrill outspokenness of the Tea Party movement, surveys indicate that 38% of all Americans blame George W. Bush for our economic maladies, compared to only 7% who blame Obama; likewise, Obama still benefits from high personal approval ratings, even if his job performance assessments are much lower. As a rule of thumb, Americans are dissatisfied with the Democrats not because of what they are doing, but because they are perceived (again correctly) as doing NOTHING. Should the Democrats change that by boldly challenging the Republicans to a showdown, I strongly suspect that they would score a massive political victory - one that would, incidentally, eventually lead to the Republicans finding some face-saving excuse to end their filibuster, pass the Democratic jobs creation plan, and benefit not only our party, but America's economy.

PS: For more information on times when this tactic worked, see Harry Truman and the "Do Nothing" Congress during the election of 1948, or Bill Clinton and the government shutdown of 1995-1996. On both occasions, a Democratic president defeated Republican legislative obstructionism by allowing them to put their tactics on full display. The victories scored by Truman and Clinton over their adversaries not only helped each president get elected to another four years, but also resulted in periods of great prosperity.

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