Seats at the Center

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 6:31 p.m.

With Susan Collins’ appointment to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Maine’s senators will play pivotal roles in the content and passage of a massive economic stimulus package. Both, wisely, are calling for strict oversight and assurances that the money will be directed toward areas such as unemployment compensation, infrastructure projects and health care where it will do the most good.

Sen. Collins is the first Maine senator to sit on the Senate’s powerful spending committee since 1972, when Margaret Chase Smith was a member. Four Republicans, including long-time member Ted Stevens of Alaska, vacated the Appropriations Committee through retirement and electoral defeat. Sen. Collins was also able to keep her seat on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, both of which will play a large role in reshaping the U.S. response to terrorism and other threats.

A seat on the Appropriations Committee is coveted because all spending provisions must go through the panel. At the same time, however, public outrage about earmarks, the practice of sticking funding for pet projects into bills, was raised this fall as Republican presidential candidate John McCain railed against it. Many earmarks are tacked onto spending bills because they frequently must pass and last-minute additions often don’t get a lot of scrutiny. New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, for example, raised the interstate weight limit for trucks in that state by tacking the measure onto an appropriations bill. Maine lawmakers have been frustrated in their efforts to raise the weight limit here.

Sen. Collins agreed that more earmark reform is needed and that the best way to do this is through more scrutiny. Funding requests should include the sponsor’s name and require a hearing.

The Appropriations Committee’s first task is to consider an $825 billion stimulus package. The Senate Finance Committee, of which Sen. Olympia Snowe is a member, will also work on the bill next week. It was passed by the House Appropriations Committee by a 35-22 vote earlier this week.

Sen. Collins’ standard for the package is simple: Will it create jobs? Will it stimulate the economy?

Her other standards are that the intervention be quick, but its effects long lasting. Infrastructure investment, for example, can put people to work quickly and its results — repaired roads and bridges and a stronger, more flexible electrical grid — will benefit communities for decades.

Sen. Snowe is on the same track.

“As the unemployment rate continues to climb, it is very clear that time is of the essence, and we must act swiftly to restore confidence in the American economy,” she said during the Finance Committee’s confirmation hearing for Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. “We can achieve this goal and inject much-needed capital into the markets by providing immediate assistance to those who have been severely displaced and extend unemployment benefits, add funding for food stamps, and increase resources to help states meet their Medicaid obligations.”

As the debate intensifies next week, Maine’s senators will be in the pivotal middle to ensure the stimulus package is properly targeted to help turn around the ailing economy.

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