GOP Senators put a stop to Harry Reid’s efforts to end debate and cast a final vote on the $410 billion spending measure that has received substantial publicity for its copious earmarks (see here). The move puts some elements of government under threat of a shutdown for lack of funding if a stopgap spending measure isn’t passed by this evening. It appears Republicans are finally willing to go the distance in standing up to excessive spending after seeing their party nearly annihilated as a result of six years of fiscal apathy. According to this article, a small cadre of conservative Democrats are also shaking their heads at the level of waste the spending bill represents, without whom curbing this largesse would be a futile enterprise. But Pelosi and Reid are firm task masters, and quite frankly it remains to be seen who is really leading the Democratic Party: the president or them.
At the very least, President Obama has demonstrated a very hands-off approach to the deeds of his Democratic fellows in Congress. Which is fine (from a separation of powers perspective), as long as he demonstrates the willingness to veto their legislation at the expense of party unity. Recent events, however, do not seem to indicate that this is the case. The president has so far shown himself to be a party man, paying lip service to bipartisanship while Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid shut conservative lawmakers out of the legislative process, craft and propose sickeningly wasteful and bloated spending measures, and attempt to force a vote before full disclosure of the details. With their current overwhelming majority in the House and tenuous dominance of the Senate, the Democrats can get away with this behavior on sheer numbers alone. But at what cost?
The $410 billion spending measure that was stalled yesterday is just the most recent in a steady march of federal payouts whose price tag defies reality and even comprehension. Reasonable people can debate the merits of the concept of government stimulus during economic downturns, and they have, but many agree that a large portion of the spending included in the stimulus package that was passed will have no stimulative effect. It is, in reality, shabbily camouflaged pork, clinging to a bare-bones stimulus that lacks direction or focus. After the heated stimulus debate last month, one would think the Democrats in Congress would tread softly on earmarks and pork. Moreover, President Obama’s much-touted campaign pledge to reduce earmarks and wasteful spending in Washington has tethered his party in large measure to fiscal responsibility. With Americans hurting now more than ever from the economic mess and the threat of their children and grandchildren living in financial slavery to the federal government looming with each new titanic spending bill, the issue is certainly relevant.
Which is why, from a purely political perspective, I can’t understand why Democrats don’t show more discipline on earmarks and spending. If they were to demonstrate real fiscal responsibility (and not just play-acting at carefully staged White House summits) and combat waste as publicly and faithfully as the GOP has decided to, they could accomplish three critical goals: actually reduce spending, fulfill the president’s promise, and steal the issue from the Republicans, who are clinging to it desperately and tenaciously because it’s all they have. Their refusal to do so, however, means that they are wholly focused on cramming through a liberal agenda that has been stifled for nearly a decade as quickly as possible. But as I said, this could come at great cost to them. For the sake of momentum, they are sacrificing refinement, caution and discipline. Their major legislation up to this point has been hastily cobbled together, laden with wasteful earmarks and unfocused, with money thrown here there and everywhere to pad liberal interests but ultimately without focus. Their supermajority will allow them to get away with this for a little while, but a backlash is coming. The midterm Congressional elections will be a critical indicator of whether the Democrats have as firm a mandate as they believe they do and how much leeway they have to misbehave. And as the president shows no willingness or ability to reign them in, the Democrats will certainly test their limits before 2010.