The Politics Of Doom

The Capitol is illuminated under stormy skies Sunday evening as Congress works on a bailout for the American economy, in Washington, Sept. 28, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

When President Bush wanted to ramrod the Patriot Act through Congress with minimal debate in 2001, he claimed immediate action was necessary to ensure the nation's safety and prosperity.

Some Democratic members of Congress complained that the process was too rushed. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts dubbed it "an outrageous procedure: A bill, drafted by a handful of people in secret, comes to us without a committee review and immune to amendment."

Seven years later, after multiple court rulings striking down portions of the Patriot Act, it's fair to say that Rep. Frank had a point.

Now President Obama wants to ramrod the so-called stimulus bill through Congress with minimal debate, claiming immediate action is necessary to ensure the nation's safety and prosperity. "I am calling on the Senate to pass this plan," Obama said in his Saturday radio address.

This time, the shoe is on the other foot. Democrats are rushing to enact the largest spending bill in the history of this nation without a single hearing, and Rep. Frank now insists that complaints "are not legitimate." Republicans are the ones calling the legislative blitzkrieg an "abomination" and "an insult."

This rush to legislate was ill-advised when the Republicans did it under Bush, and it's ill-advised when the Democrats do it under Obama. Call it the politics of doom, with practitioners insisting that unless you endorse a massive proposal with plenty of unrelated amendments, they'll blame future problems on you.

Let's be honest here, folks: Our esteemed elected representatives can (and should) take some more time to get this right. Every dollar that we spend we'll borrow - most likely from the Chinese - and future generations will be stuck paying back this debt with interest.

True, layoffs are rising as house and stock prices are falling. But the U.S. unemployment rate remains at 7.2 percent, lower than where it was in 1975 and 1992 and far lower than a truly worrisome 10.8 percent in 1982. Even Michigan is doing much better than that today; this is hardly confirmation of a Great Depression 2.0.

So far, the current list of "stimulus" recipients includes $870 million for flu prevention, $6 billion for drinking water projects, and $19.5 billion for school modernization.

Lobbyists for Florida citrus growers, California wineries and pharmaceutical companies are busy ensuring their well-connected clients share in the largesse. Because much of the spending is in the form of grants, federal agencies will dole out billions. Cities and states have submitted their 344-page wish list, which has been ably deconstructed by the open-government activists at StimulusWatch.org.

(Who knew that the city of Natchez, Miss. insists that spending $600 million on an "ethnic heritage trail" is the best use of stimulus funds? Or that Austin, Tex. is demanding a $866,000 bailout for a frisbee golf course?)

Those projects may be useful. They may not be. But they have one thing in common: most of us would not call them vital elements of an emergency "stimulus" plan.

Before the 9/11 attacks, supporters of more government surveillance had pressed to give police the ability to obtain court orders allowing them to secretly enter someone's home, search it, and leave without notifying them.

They initially failed; members of Congress rejected that idea. But after 9/11 the Bush administration took advantage of a feeling of national unity by gluing secret searches and other rejected proposals onto the Patriot Act.

Today that pattern is repeating itself. Democrats over the years have developed a long list of policy goals, including spending more on alternative energy, Pell Grants, public housing and health care for the middle class. The "stimulus" legislation has become a convenient excuse to enact them at a time when the public may not be paying close attention.

There is some hope of cooler minds prevailing. An article in Wednesday's Washington Post reports that Senate Democrats don't have enough votes to enact the current version of this pork-stuffed bill.

Republicans should push to carve this already-pricey proposal, which started at $300 billion and is now approaching $1 trillion, into smaller slices. Being able to vote down some of the more execrable "stimulus" spending ideas is one small step toward rejecting the politics of fear.


Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. He previously was Wired's Washington bureau chief and a reporter for Time.com and Time magazine in Washington, D.C. He has taught journalism, public policy, and First Amendment law. He is an occasional programmer, avid analog and digital photographer, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. His e-mail address is declan.mccullagh@cnet.com
  • Declan McCullagh On Twitter»

    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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