Friday, January 30, 2009

Welcome to Reality

David Brooks is apparently mystified that the stimulus bill that emerged from the House was not what was initially proposed.

Throughout 2008, Larry Summers, the Harvard economist, built the case for a big but surgical stimulus package. Summers warned that a “poorly provided fiscal stimulus can have worse side effects than the disease that is to be cured.” So his proposal had three clear guidelines.

First, the stimulus should be timely. The money should go out “almost immediately.” Second, it should be targeted. It should help low- and middle-income people. Third, it should be temporary. Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

Summers was proposing bold action, but his concept came with safeguards: focus on the task at hand, prevent the usual Washington splurge and limit long-term fiscal damage.

Now Barack Obama is president, and Summers has become a top economic adviser. Yet the stimulus approach that has emerged on Capitol Hill abandoned the Summers parameters.

In a fateful decision, Democratic leaders merged the temporary stimulus measure with their permanent domestic agenda — including big increases for Pell Grants, alternative energy subsidies and health and entitlement spending. The resulting package is part temporary and part permanent, part timely and part untimely, part targeted and part untargeted.

Mr. Brooks has some suggestions: cut it back before it takes over the world.

This recession is scary and complicated. It’s insane to try to tackle it and dozens of other complicated problems, all in one piece of legislation. Leadership involves prioritizing. Those who try to do everything at once will end up with a sprawling, lobbyist-driven mess that does nothing well.

Well, we all agree that it would be nice if that happened, but there’s one small detail that Mr. Brooks is forgetting: Congress.

There are 535 men and women who have a say in this stimulus package. Some of them are opposed to the bill in its entirety without even reading it because they are members of a political party that is taking its marching orders from a disembodied voice that comes from a box. Then there are those who are most assuredly in favor of the bill as long as it makes them look good to the people who elected them, and the temptation to slap something onto it is very powerful. There are trade-offs, compromises, deals, promises, and strong-armed lobbying in the process. It’s how our system works.

I realize this must be an alien concept to Mr. Brooks. He got so accustomed to the rubber-stamp era of the whoop-through Republicans and pushover Democrats under President Bush that he’s shocked, shocked to learn that in a reality-based world, legislation never comes out the way it goes in. It’s messy and it’s not perfect by any means, but apparently it’s what the voters want because they are the ones who elected these people.