The "stimulus package" [Recovery and Reinvestment Act] has passed Congress and the President has signed it into law. And that is a good thing. Something had to happen to begin to address the economic crisis facing our Nation. I am writing this not to argue about the specifics contained in the package. I am writing this to address the partisan processes that were in plain sight as Congress did its work.
There was little disagreement among Senators and Representatives that a stimulus package had to be fashioned. The President touted his desire for a bi-partisan approach to the bill and indeed went to Capital Hill, met with the Republicans and subsequently invited their leadership to a meeting in the White House. In the meantime, the Speaker apparently went her way in fashioning the bill with minimal or no input from the minority party. The result was a series of votes, partisan in the extreme, in both Houses of Congress.
Votes cast along party lines in the passage of this important measure suggest that a number of the votes were cast out of concern for party politics and not for what should have been the overriding concern -- the health of the Nation. This suggestion likely applies to many votes from each side of the aisle.
The polls indicate that the large majority of Americans wanted a stimulus bill, a jobs bill and not simply a tax relief bill. But something strange happened on the way to the Forum.
The Republicans complained bitterly that they were not involved in fashioning the bill - they wanted more tax relief, a smaller dollar package and less government involvement. Though they did get some concessions, both through amendment and Conference Committee negotiations, it was not enough for them to gain their support. Of course during the years in which the Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, the budget inflated, government grew and there was tax relief - for the wealthy.
For their part the Democrats talked about openness, full debate and collaboration. When the final version of the bill was made available to the Senate after midnight on Friday the 13th, the resolution, previously passed by the Senate to allow at least 48 hours from printing to voting, suddenly had no standing or meaning. The majority leader forced a vote on that very same day in concert with the Speaker of the House.
It was almost as if one party had morphed into the other and vice-versa. The Republicans complained about being shut-out and the Democrats rode rough-shod over an agreed upon process.
How reminiscent of some other votes that had been taken under the threat of impending catastrophe - the Iraq War resolution, the USA Patriot Act, the ill-conceived "Bail Out" bill, the Iran blockade bill - all important bills with huge implications and no time or opportunity to read and digest, let alone fully debate. Each of these measures has hurt this Nation. And now the Democrats would not even allow a full 48 hours to digest and debate the Conference Committee version of the stimulus package.
What was the rush? What was the urgency? This is de'j├ vu again. The same sequence happened with the Bail Out legislation. Oh, yes, Speaker Pelosi, it was more important to foreshorten debate so that the "troops" could go home on recess than to more fully consider, and possibly fashion, an improved piece of legislation. It is inescapable to conclude that once again "Politics trumps duty and due diligence."
During the debate, there was no significant open discussion about cutting the largest government program, the military budget - estimated at $1.1 trillion for '08 - as a way to help fund the stimulus. There was no open discussion of requiring the conversion of war industries to peace industries; to begin building wind machines and mass transit vehicles instead of Aegis class destroyers and nuclear weapons, otherwise known as WMDs. I am unaware of meaningful discussion of Senator Snowe's (R - Maine) constructive suggestion that each section of the stimulus bill should have the number of projected jobs identified.
The Republicans fell back on name calling, "pork" and "earmarks", and talking points which were simultaneously contradictory and disingenuous. The Democrats exercised the power of a majority, loaded the bill with mostly good items, but some were inappropriately placed in the stimulus bill, e.g., money for digital conversion boxes [which are not manufactured in the U.S.], office furniture for Homeland Security, funding for FBI salaries. In so doing Democrats weakened the effort to gain more support.
The leadership of the Parties behaved badly as they placed partisanship and power above the best interests of the Nation. Ultimately, a stimulus package was passed because two Independent and three Republican senators were willing to recognize that the bill, though not perfect, was essential and to cast their votes on the basis of what they believe is best for their country.
The stimulus package history provides one more example of how the two party system and partisan politics is failing this Nation. When wielding power and party preservation become paramount, we all suffer; the country suffers and principles frequently take a back seat.
It is time to change the two party duopoly and move towards a more open system of electing those who represent the People not the Party. Open primaries and ranked voting systems would be important steps in this direction.
Herbert J. Hoffman is a retired psychologist who resides in Ogunquit, Maine. He was an Independent candidate for the United States Senate in 2008.