While the U.S. economy sheds jobs daily and the stock market frequently loses over $1 trillion in value in a matter of hours, firing partisan potshots looks a lot like fiddling while Washington burns. But, that is what the debate over a government stimulus package has come down to. At the center of this debate, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe must keep their sights on the reason for the bill — to jump-start the sagging U.S. economy — and encourage their cohorts to do the same. Such a boost is most likely through targeted government spending that creates jobs and puts money into the hands of people who will spend it buying goods and services, which is what U.S. companies sorely need to avoid further downsizing and layoffs.
The Senate this week passed an $838 billion stimulus package. Maine’s senators and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania were the only Republicans to vote for the plan. The House last month passed an $819 billion bill without any Republican support.
A committee reached a tentative agreement Wednesday on a $789 billion bill with the goal of getting a final document to President Obama by the end of the week.
Republicans generally believe that the package is too big and will burden future generations with too much debt. Some social service, environmental and liberal groups, meanwhile, criticize the Senate package for shortchanging energy conservation, school construction and financial aid to states.
Both are valid concerns, but they must be tempered with a dose of reality.
The ballooning federal deficit has long been a problem, but that didn’t stop the vast majority of Republicans in Congress from voting unconditionally to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or to approve massive tax cuts, which have added hundreds of billions of dollars to the debt.
Economists don’t truly know how big the stimulus package should be or how quickly it will show results. But, they do agree that the federal government is the only entity with the financial resources to try to stop the economic free fall.
The question then is where those government resources should best be allocated. Funding infrastructure projects and sending money to states are among the best way to do this. Cutting taxes is not as effective.
Sens. Snowe and Collins firmly understand the need for a stimulus package and have been at the center of efforts to draft the necessary legislation. For their efforts, their Republican colleagues have mocked and insulted them. The Maine Democratic Party called them “obstructionists in moderates’ clothing” and inexplicably blamed them for sitting on the sidelines.
The attacks from both parties are unnecessarily virulent. Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, set the appropriate tone. “Sen. Collins and Sen. Snowe … have shown that they are willing to put the interests of their country and their state above ideology. The work they are doing is difficult and too often thankless,” he added in an understatement.
Maine’s senators are trying to solve a real problem by focusing on the right solution. Some of their decisions about specific line items may be wrong, but their instincts are not.