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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Post-Partisan Pain

by dday

It was a good week, with a lot of progress packed into it, and many hoped that would be the pattern of this next Administration. However, there's enough data to map out an alternate scenario, one where President Obama tries to keep his personal approval ratings high by placating Republicans and stiffing Democrats.

First we have the pre-compromised stimulus package, which is about to get more compromised thanks to a GOP hissy fit.

House Democrats are likely to jettison family planning funds for the low-income from an $825 billion economic stimulus bill, officials said late Monday, following a personal appeal from President Barack Obama at a time the administration is courting Republican critics of the legislation.

Several officials said a final decision was expected on Tuesday, coinciding with Obama's scheduled visit to the Capitol for separate meetings with House and Senate Republicans.

The provision has emerged as a point of contention among Republicans, who criticize it as an example of wasteful spending that would neither create jobs nor otherwise improve the economy.

The report is that Obama personally called Henry Waxman, who has jurisdiction over the provision, and told him to ditch it. So now we're listening to Republicans who have no imagination and don't understand the economy. Family planning is a demand-based service that requires staffing. That means jobs. Jobs that now won't be created or will be eliminated by the states because it makes Republicans feel icky.

Then there's the mortgage provisions which Democrats would like to put in the stimulus bill that would allow homeowners to get their principle reduced by a bankruptcy judge, but which Obama wants out of it because big business and their Republican puppets might get mad at him. And once again, the President is prevailing.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, said Obama persuaded him in a White House meeting Friday to remove the bankruptcy proposal from an economic recovery package -- to ensure it doesn't jeopardize the stimulus bill. But Obama pledged his support for the bankruptcy solution, Durbin said.

Obama said he would work with Durbin to attach the proposal to other ''must pass'' legislation -- with the hope that supporters of the overall bill would not vote against it because of the bankruptcy provisions.

Right, and then that "must pass" bill, like the stimulus, runs into trouble because of the cram-down provision, so it's removed, and on, and on, and on... Chris Bowers notes that future passage of cram-down is not going to be easy, considering that 11 Democrats voted against it the last time it came up. So hundreds of billions of dollars for financial interests, but no sensible reform which would actually clarify their balance sheets and keep people from going homeless. All in the name of bipartisanship.

And then there are lingering concerns, like the ineffective corporate tax breaks still embedded in the bill.

At least $23.8 billion in corporate tax breaks have been included in the $825 billion economic recovery package in order to win backing from key business groups and their Congressional allies, even though the team that put the legislation together believes the breaks have little value in stimulating the economy and creating jobs.

Top beneficiaries include banks, telecommunication companies, railroads and oil, hotels, casinos, and both commercial and residential real estate firms.

"Everyone knows these provisions are not going to do much, but some members of Congress need to be able to say 'the bill has a business tax cut.' So we put them in," said an Obama transition team architect, adding that the corporate breaks were carefully written to be temporary so that the drain on the treasury will be brief. According to another source: "This is just one of those things that you do to get a bill passed. It may not be pretty. We are talking about billions, but in reality it's only a tiny fraction of the whole bill."

That's a bit of honesty there. They're including ineffective giveaways to industry for no reason but to seem bipartisan. By the way that bipartisan support won't be coming, leaving a bunch of tax breaks in there for no reason. And there is a cost. By contrast, mass transit and rail spending really IS a tiny fraction of the whole bill, in fact pathetically tiny, at a time when ridership is up but funds are down.

The dramatic spike in gas prices that began in 2005 sent Americans flocking to trains, buses and subways, a trend that appears to have held up even as gas prices have dipped. But 2009 could be a year of crisis for the agencies that run them -- a time of more riders but much less money.

Some new funding could come as part of House Democrats' proposed $825-billion stimulus package, which, in its current form, sets aside $9 billion for public transportation. But all of that money would be used for new capital projects, not operating costs. And it is operating budgets -- the money agencies need to run the systems they have now -- that are getting hammered.

If service cuts or increased fares become widespread, transit operators around the country fear they will drive away the new converts they picked up when gas prices were high.

Operating existing transit and rail lines keep jobs intact and reduce carbon emissions, as well as regularize mass transit as a factor in people's lives.

The stimulus isn't a horrible bill, and there's a lot to like in there, particularly in the energy and health care provisions. But it's certainly Chamber of Commerce-friendly at a time when their member organizations are laying off tens of thousands. Obama has maintained this sugar plum fairy vision of bipartisanship, yet his bill manifestly does NOT value "what works" over ideology. Quite the opposite. It makes room for ideology, conservative ideology, and pre-empts provisions that would work much better in bringing back the economy. Despite a mandate for major new social and economic programs from the public, Obama is still playing small ball. He's responding to Republican hissy fits and teaching them that all they have to do to wring a concession is scream for a day or so and let their media allies whip up a frenzy. He's offering half-measures when they won't do the job.

If this bill is a blueprint for the next four years, it's going to be a missed opportunity. Also painful.

UPDATE: Good thing all that nastiness was taken out and those nice corporate tax breaks put in. It's really seemed to bring everyone together.

President Barack Obama is coming to the Capitol this afternoon to curry favor with congressional Republicans. But it appears GOP leaders have already made up their minds to oppose his $825 billion stimulus plan.

House Republican Leader John A. Boehner and his No. 2, Whip Eric Cantor, told their rank-and-file members Tuesday morning during a closed-door meeting to oppose the bill when it comes to the floor Wednesday, according to an aide familiar with the discussion. Boehner told members that he's voting against the stimulus, and Cantor told the assembled Republicans that there wasn't any reason for them to support the measure, according to another person in the room. Cantor and his whip team are going to urge GOP members to oppose it.

Ahh, post-partisanship.