Columns, Opinion

SZAFRANSKI: Stimulate that!

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the much anticipated economic stimulus package last week ‘-‘- without any Republican support. Angered by insufficient tax cuts, the package’s overall cost and its failure to focus on infrastructure, the GOP balked.

Ever since his election, President Obama has pushed for an infrastructure bill. The infrastructure of the United States, from bridges to rail to schools and beyond, has been in a sorry state of disrepair for far too long. Minneapolis experienced the tragic consequences firsthand when an interstate highway tumbled into the Mississippi River in 2007.

Obama’s stimulus bill was intended to create and save jobs by funding infrastructure projects, large and small, that require workers and materials. By last week, however, only 30 percent of the package was going toward infrastructure.

Other portions of the stimulus would provide cash to help balance budgets in lieu of state layoffs or tax hikes that could further undermine the economy. The economy had been, in part, held up by state governments’ spending until the worst of the crisis hit in September.

The Republicans were probably on board up to that point, but what alienated them from the bill was the inclusion of a Democratic wish list. From health insurance to extended unemployment benefits, the bill touches on areas that, although relevant to the bad economy, may not belong in the stimulus package. In fact, many of these proposals are appropriate, but they should not be shoehorned into the stimulus.’

Conservatives in general claim that government spending does not improve the economy, citing how the New Deal failed to end the Depression. Although it is true that pre-war government spending did not lift the nation out of the Depression, investment in infrastructure did put millions to work, improve morale and, most important, laid the groundwork for the modern economy that would emerge after the war.

Spending on unemployment, however necessary to those who lose their jobs, does not really replace their lost income. Nor does it stimulate the economy. These people will either save their unemployment checks or pay bills with it. Therefore, it should be addressed in a parallel relief bill rather than lumped in with the stimulus.

In the Senate, there is hope of gaining GOP support for three reasons. The Senate traditionally passes major legislation by consensus ‘-‘- in other words, well above a simple majority. Second, Obama needs to make sure both parties jump into the stimulus together. That way, if it does not work, everybody gets blamed. Third, the president campaigned with a post-partisan message, and a partisan vote to save the economy undercuts that.

The Senate has begun to correct the House bill, while adding billions of dollars more. The Democrats, fresh from victory in November, may not compromise on core values. Nonetheless, agreement remains possible and is crucial to Obama’s success. If Obama cannot gain the broad support he needs, he may find himself governing by party-line votes in the foreseeable future.

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