By Daniel Politi
The House approved the $819 billion stimulus package, but President Obama’s efforts to bring Republicans to his side didn’t pay off. The bill passed without a single Republican vote, and 11 Democrats also opposed the measure. The Los Angeles Times declares that the package is “the largest attempt since World War II to use the federal budget to redirect the course of the nation’s economy.” The Washington Post specifies that the price tag is larger “than the combined total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far,” and the Wall Street Journal points out the cost of the bill is “almost equal to the entire cost of annual federal spending under Congress’s discretion.”
The New York Times notes that the lack of Republican support for the bill “seemed to echo the early months of the last Democratic administration, when President Bill Clinton in 1993 had to rely solely on Democrats to win passage of a deficit-reduction bill that was a signature element of his presidency.” But USA Today says that “Obama’s chance of winning GOP Senate votes next week is better.” Indeed, Obama suggested that he will welcome changes to the bill in the Senate that might attract more support from Republicans. And a few Republicans hinted that they might support the final version of the bill if some changes are implemented in the Senate, suggesting the unanimous voting was a tactic to get Democrats to pay attention to their demands.
Implementing some changes requested by Republicans has already pushed the total cost of the bill in the Senate to almost $900 billion. And that’s bound only to increase. The WP details that senators are preparing new amendments to the bill that include a reduction in taxes on corporate profits earned abroad and brought back to the United States. There are likely to be more amendments in the coming days as a variety of interest groups are busy clamoring for a piece of the pie. The Senate is likely to vote on the measure next week, and Democrats continue to emphasize that they want to get the package to Obama’s desk by Feb. 13, before Congress goes on recess for Presidents Day.
So, what exactly is in the package? Several of the papers, particularly the WSJ, do an admirable job of trying to enumerate the main aspects of the package, and USAT provides a handy outline. But, as the LAT summarizes, it ultimately “contains an almost-bewildering array of provisions, many of them funded at all-but-unprecedented levels.” Whichever way you look at it, the bill would be a major change in the way Washington goes about trying to boost the economy. As the WSJ notes, whereas the Bush administration leaned toward tax cuts that benefitted those in the middle class and above, the tax cuts in this stimulus package focus on lower-income Americans. And that’s without considering the dizzying mixture of spending that makes up two-thirds of the total cost and includes both short-term and long-term projects.
In a piece inside, the WSJ highlights that the final version of the package “could include dozens of special-interest provisions” that were championed by lawmakers to help their constituents. And lobbyists are working overtime to try to get senators to throw a little bit of stimulus their way. In typical sausage-making fashion, some things were added to the bill that don’t even have anything to do with the economy. For example, one Democratic lawmaker added a measure to give federal workers more whistle-blower protections.
The WP devotes a separate front-page piece to a provision in the Senate version of the package that would require “all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.” It is turning out to be one of the most controversial aspects of the bill as many of the largest American companies are characterizing it as a war against free trade. There are fears that if the provision stays in the bill, it would lead other countries to retaliate against U.S. companies and might encourage similar measures around the world, which could usher in a new era of protectionism.
In a front-page analysis, the NYT‘s David Herszenhorn says that while it’s clear that some of the stimulus “will start to be felt within weeks” of Obama’s signature, estimating the package’s effectiveness “is a far more complex calculation requiring almost line-by-line scrutiny of the 647-page bill.” The increase in unemployment benefits and food stamps would almost certainly produce a quick jolt to the economy, and the aid that would be provided to states is also generally seen as an area where the stimulus could be effective. One of the big unknowns is the infrastructure spending because it would generally take longer to implement. That could be good if the recovery is slow, but if the economy recovers quickly, these projects “could start just in time to compete with renewed private spending.”
If there is one thing that was made clear this week, it’s that partisan politics is alive and well in Washington, notes the LAT in an analysis piece inside the paper. While the approval of the bill was undoubtedly a victory for the new administration, it “also marked a victory of sorts for [Rush] Limbaugh and other conservative opinion leaders.” In a tactic that dutifully followed the partisan playbook, Republicans focused much of their attention on some sections of the bill that were easy to mock. Limbaugh’s power was in full view yesterday as one Republican lawmaker found himself apologizing after he criticized the radio host.
In an op-ed piece in the WSJ, Limbaugh writes that the “porkulus” bill is designed to “cement the party’s majority power for decades.” In a funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad moment, Limbaugh urges a bipartisanship approach to the bill, saying that since Obama got around 54 percent of the vote, then that same percentage of the stimulus package should be decided by Democrats, while the rest should “be directed toward tax cuts, as determined by me.” The current crisis “is an opportunity to unify people, if we set aside the politics.”
Moving on to another part of the ailing economy, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said yesterday that the administration is working on a plan to “repair the financial system.” Geithner didn’t release any details, but the WSJ hears word from officials that the Obama administration is looking at spending another $1 trillion to $2 trillion in its attempts to bolster financial institutions. And that huge figure might be optimistic. The NYT says some estimate it may take up to $3 trillion to $4 trillion to buy up the toxic assets currently plaguing banks’ balance sheets. This, of course, would mean that the administration would have to go to Congress to ask for more funds since only $350 billion of the $700 billion financial bailout is still available, and some of that has already been earmarked for certain projects.
Just because financial companies across Wall Street lost billions of dollars and asked for help from Uncle Sam, that doesn’t mean they didn’t pay their employees enviable bonuses. The NYT reports that the New York state comptroller revealed that employees at financial companies received around $18.4 billion in bonuses in 2008, and that’s without counting stock option awards. Although far less than recent years, it was the sixth-largest bonus season on record. It’s unclear whether the companies used taxpayer money to pay for the bonuses, but it’s a distinct possibility.
The Food and Drug Administration issued “one of the largest food recalls in history” yesterday when it announced that all products made from peanuts processed by Peanut Corp. of America’s plant in Georgia over the last two years should be thrown out, the Post reports on Page One. The dramatic move came after investigators discovered that the plant knowingly shipped salmonella-contaminated products a dozen times in 2007 and 2008. One lawmaker said she would ask the Justice Department to investigate whether criminal charges should be filed against plant officials. Eight people have died and more than 500 people were sickened by salmonella poisoning linked to the Georgia plant.
Although Obama has been in office for barely a week, he has already managed to change the White House culture, notes the NYT. A photograph showing Obama sans suit jacket in the Oval Office shocked Bush administration officials, who were always required to wear one. Obama’s advisers say the president likes it warm and had cranked up the heat (um, what about that global warming thing?), but it’s clear the new president is less hung up on protocol than his predecessor. He is allowing staff members to dress “business casual” on weekends, roams the halls, and comes into work later and stays later than Bush did.
The White House’s new occupant “was off to a quick start in fulfilling his promise to embrace Washington’s ways,” as the WP puts it, when he seemed obsessed about the fact that the school his daughters attend canceled classes after a 2-inch snowfall and freezing rain. “We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,” Obama said. Washington transplants often complain that schools are too quick to close for snow that would barely cause a traffic jam in other parts of the country. But many Washingtonians were not amused.
“[W]elcome to Washington, President Obama,” writes Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor. “And thanks for the snow advice. I eagerly await August, to see if you can ‘handle’ a Washington summer. Remember: It’s not the heat. It’s the humidity.”