President Obama and congressional Democrats may learn that size does matter when it comes to the economic stimulus package -- but not the way one might think. Right now, arguments on the the huge $825 billion spending bill center on its basic efficacy: Will that amount of money be able to get into the economy in a quick enough time to warrant the expenditure? Over the weekend, a Goldman Sachs study suggested the answer was "no":
"Preliminary estimates imply that of the $825 billion Congress is considering,
only $250 billion will make it into the economy in the current calendar year.
This could still change as the package works its way through Congress, but these
estimates highlight the political and practical challenges in enacting an
effective fiscal package, particularly in 2009."
But, that simple fact is not what congressional Republicans are focusing on. As House Republican Leader John Boehner noted, conservatives seem more inclined to highlight one specific item in the bill: The $250-300 million (with an "M") targeted for contraceptives and various "family planning" as it is occasionally known. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosidefended this expenditure.
This is a great example of what the odd fact about big government-spending bill is: It's often not huge numbers that cause public opinion to sway one way or another. It's actually a smaller amount of money -- spent in a way that the public deems foolish -- that creates doubts on the overall wisdom being placed in the larger amount.
Republicans have seen this script before: Back in 1994, before the election, Democrats were steering through a $30 billion crime bill. It was, generally, popular (though the Congressional Black Caucus had some problems with the increased punitive measures in the legislation). However, just before Congress headed into the Labor Day recess, conservatives seized on one item: $40 million for the creation of "midnight basketball leagues" in inner-city areas.
It was part of the "crime-prevention" part of the bill. Its inclusion in a crime bill hit many in the public the wrong way. House Republicans felt empowered to vote against the bill because it was in there. The CBC still felt the overall bill was too punitive. This odd left-right opposition caused a complete revolt in the House of Representatives. As a result, the procedural rule guiding debate on the bill -- usually a pro forma vote -- was voted down on the House floor. The failure to pass the bill became symbolic of the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic Congress -- with Bill Clinton as president. Two months later, the Republicans won Congress.
Circumstances are different today: For one thing, Democrats are on an upswing and aren't defending the way things have been done for the previous 40 years.
Still, the events of 15 years ago are instructive: Just $40 million was enough to help bring down a $30 billion bill. Could $250 million do the same to an $825 billion package? Unlikely, but it might behoove the president and the congressional majority to isolate and eliminate such easy targets.
Unless Obama, Pelosi and company really want to give new meaning to the phrase "stimulus package."
Robert A. George is a New York writer who blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.