President Barack Obama should learn from his tumultuous struggle to drag his reputed stimulus measure through Congress. Rather than let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid craft major bills, Obama should offer specific proposals and have his allies push them toward adoption.
So far, Obama has employed the legislative strategy that sank former President George W. Bush. From farm subsidies to highway funds to Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulation to last fall’s $700 billion bank-bailout fiasco, Bush passively let Congress write major bills, rather than actively draft them at the White House, before asking sympathetic lawmakers to shepherd them to passage.
Like a king who signed whatever document shared the silver platter with his roast hasenpfeffer, Bush approved everything the GOP Congress sent him for six years. His Social Security reform flopped partially because he never advanced his own plan, and gelatinous GOP congressional leaders were too busy quivering to do so.
Obama should avoid this mistake. As Ronald Reagan usually did, Obama should design his own proposals, select Congressional allies to introduce them, and then harness his 65 percent popularity and abundant persuasive talents to propel them as nearly intact as possible through a Congress saddled with a 20 percent approval rating.
"We believe that had (Obama) had free rein and a free hand in crafting this legislation, it would look a lot different," Rep. Jeff Flake (R — Arizona) told the Washington Times January 27. "But because it’s gone through the congressional Democrats, it’s basically a grab bag for every program they’ve wanted to see funded for years."
According to news accounts and the House Republican Study Committee, Capitol Hill is the North Pole as this $1.3 trillion spending plan becomes a visit from St. Nick:
— $88 million for a new polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard.
— $400 million for NASA to research so-called "global warming."
— $400 million for the Social Security Administration’s National Computer Center. "An estimated 400 jobs will be created during the construction process," boasted House appropriators. Cost per job: $1 million.
— The State Department’s $524 million Capital Investment Fund would create 388 positions. "That comes to $1.35 million per job," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
— $600 million to train doctors and nurses as "a key component of attaining universal health care," House appropriators said.
— $650 million for digital TV conversion coupons. At $40 each, why not tell Americans to fund this themselves? Sacrificing $1 per day accumulates this money within six weeks.
— $800 million for biomass projects.
— $2 billion for a near-zero-emissions electrical plant in Matoon, Illinois.
— $2.4 billion for carbon-sequestration technology.
— $15.6 billion in Pell Grants to aid college students.
And much more.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D — Tennessee) on February 2 let Liberadio peek inside Pelosi’s toy workshop. Democratic leaders "don’t care what’s in the bill, they just want it to pass, and they want it to be unanimous," Cooper said. "We’re just told how to vote. We’re treated like mushrooms most of the time."
Cooper, 10 other Democrats, and all House Republicans voted "No." The bill still passed, 244 to 188.
About the best that free-market supporters can expect here is modest, stimulating business-tax relief, perhaps tax credits for new hiring, and outlays to repair damaged infrastructure. Why not give the states block grants they must spend to fix at-risk thoroughfares? Repairs should prevent disasters like the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured some 140.
President Obama has the gravitas and goodwill to provide the adult supervision that this bill and future legislation require. While the results rarely will thrill free-marketeers, we lost the last election and must play a weak hand. Our best bet is to encourage Obama to buckle up Pelosi and Reid and adopt as many of our ideas as bipartisanship permits. With Obama driving and Nancy and Harry riding along, a smoother journey should lead us to a better destination.
(Deroy Murdock is a columnist and media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.Murdock(at)gmail.com)