Americans Still Can't Trust Congress

Americans Still Can't Trust Congress

By Ruben Navarrette - February 4, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- The American people are right to react to the ongoing debate over an economic stimulus package with mixed feelings and a profound sense of frustration.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that most Americans overwhelmingly want Congress to pass the stimulus bill, but they're not hopeful that the final product will help their families or turn the economy around.

Normally we would applaud decisive action by our leaders in response to a crisis. But the quick work that House Democrats made of their $819 billion stimulus bill reminds us that haste often makes wasteful spending -- especially when it goes to fund a party's pet causes. Having been taught that our financial system is broken, we are once again reminded that our political system is not exactly humming along either. Lawmakers have a tendency to produce monstrously large, 600-page bills and then pass them in a rush before the media have had time to see what's in the sausage.

Dwelling over which company paid out how much in bonuses or which executive spent lavishly to remodel his office or whether the spending package will benefit Main Street as opposed to Wall Street ignores the more important questions. What we really need to decide is whether President Barack Obama is right that Congress needs to act "swiftly" and shouldn't let what he calls "very modest differences" between Democrats and Republicans get in the way, or whether Senate Republicans are right that the $819 billion House bill is a monstrosity that needs taming with more tax cuts and less spending.

It would be better if we could have both decisive action and still wind up with the right course of action. But, at the moment, that doesn't seem likely. It is better to take the time to get it right.

This week, Senate Republicans drafted their own $713 billion stimulus bill with much different priorities than House Democrats had spelled out. The Republicans want to spend $114 billion on infrastructure projects -- which, ironically, the administration said were supposed to be the major points of the stimulus before Democratic lawmakers went astray funding everything from tax breaks for movie producers to child care on military bases. Republicans would also spend $138 billion to extend unemployment benefits and another $31 billion to help alleviate the housing crisis. Of course, the Republicans saved the real money for tax cuts -- $430 billion worth.

One of the tenets of the business world is that chaos creates opportunity. But in politics, the phrase takes on a whole new meaning. In Washington, chaos presents an opportunity for lawmakers in both parties to selfishly put their own interests before the interests of the country.

Naturally, Democrats are going to use the economic crisis to try and take care of the labor unions that take care of them. The "Buy American" provision in the House bill would, for the most part, bar foreign steel and iron from public-funded infrastructure projects. Senate Democrats want to require, with few exceptions, that any stimulus-funded project use only American-made products and equipment.

Meanwhile, Republicans can be counted on to push for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, despite the fact that the Bush tax cuts didn't stimulate much of anything. And even with economists saying that in bad times like these, people are more likely to save money or use it to pay down debt than to spend it, the GOP can't help itself. It is just as eager as the opposition to use a crisis to advance an agenda item or reward supporters.

President Obama erred in trusting Democrats in Congress to put aside politics and find solutions. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill will continue to give the president headaches by pursuing their own agendas. But Americans made a bigger mistake in expecting government to come to the rescue with a quick fix to an economic collapse that did not happen overnight and thus will not be repaired overnight.

What were we thinking? Congress is going to do what it wants to do for the reasons it wants to do it. And still, in the end, whatever it does might not help all that much. So, in making the kinds of decisions that impact their economic health and that of their families, Americans are going to have to continue to look out for themselves.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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