Now that Congress has enacted a version of Joe Biden’s stimulus legislation that included most of what he originally proposed (with the notable exception of a $15 minimum wage) and sharply divided the two parties in both houses, the spin wars will begin in earnest, beginning, most likely, with the president’s address to the nation on Thursday. We have a pretty good idea what pols in both parties will say, and it’s worth taking a look at the three dumbest arguments we’ve heard against this legislation.
It Was “Rammed” Through Congress
From the moment Biden and congressional Democrats signaled they would advance the stimulus legislation via the budget-reconciliation process to circumvent a sure Republican filibuster in the Senate, Republicans and the entire conservative commentariat have acted as though the gambit was unprecedented. Alarums about Democrats “ramming” the bill through Congress without bipartisan support have been raised about every ten minutes. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Every Republican president dating back to Ronald Reagan has exploited the reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster and pass huge, unread packages of legislation on largely party-line votes.
Indeed, Reagan’s use of the device in 1981 really was unprecedented at the time, and was truly audacious. When they decided Democratic-controlled House committees had done a thorough enough job of implementing the budget resolution Reagan had earlier “rammed” through Congress, Republicans at the very last second introduced a thousand-plus-page floor substitute for the entire package. It was so hastily put together that the text included scribbled lunch orders and phone numbers. Literally no one read the mess in its entirety.
Subsequently every president has used reconciliation for one or more major legislative initiatives: most recently Donald Trump, whose various unsuccessful bills to repeal and replace Obamacare were reconciliation measures with no significant Democratic input or support (even before House Speaker Paul Ryan boasted that reconciliation was “a bazooka in my pocket”). So too was Trump’s successful 2017 tax-cut package. Many of the Republicans and conservative opinion leaders who are whining about Biden’s partisanship had zero problems with Trump’s. If they truly wanted bipartisan legislation they should have made Biden a more generous offer than the third-of-a-loaf stimulus proposal that only ten of their senators supported. But in any event, Republican complaints about the use of reconciliation are simply dumb.
The Bill Was a “Liberal Wish List”
If “ramming” is the verb in many a Republican-drafted sentence about the stimulus bill, the subject is typically “a liberal wish list.” The smear is intended to suggest that the legislation goes far beyond what is necessary to address the pandemic and its human and economic byproducts to reflect partisan priorities. It’s a circular argument, of course, since Democrats and Republicans profoundly disagree about what is necessary to address the pandemic and its human and economic byproducts. That liberals “wish” to do the things they deem necessary and appropriate hardly discredits their efforts.
But as the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman observes, the whole “wish list” dismissal is really dumb:
Another word for “wish list” is “agenda.” And yes, Democrats have used the American Rescue Plan to advance a good deal of their agenda. That’s what happens when a party gets power: It passes legislation, and that legislation reflects the preferences of its members and their constituents. That Republicans are treating that as somehow unusual or inappropriate is positively bizarre.
Again, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the complaint, particularly among the Republicans who have faithfully followed the lead of the most divisive president in history, Trump. Perhaps they thought of the 45th president’s “wish list” as relatively modest, since it mostly amounted to unlimited power and minimal accountability for his own self. But his wishes were their command.
The Bill Includes a Lot of Spending!
One of the most outspoken GOP opponents of the bill, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, seemed to think that dramatizing the size of the stimulus would galvanize the public, as Insider’s Sonam Sheth reported:
H]e introduced a … graphic showing how big a stack of a trillion one-dollar bills would be. It’s unclear why he chose this figure or what it signifies.
According to the graphic, a stack of 1 trillion dollar bills would be 67,866 miles high. That’s a long distance.
“That is what we are debating spending,” Johnson said. “A stack of dollar bills that extends more than halfway the distance to the moon.”
That is dumb.
Other Republicans have pulled out worn copies of past warnings about spending, deficits, and debt, including Mitch McConnell, as the Financial Times reported: “It will not serve Americans to pile another huge mountain of debt on our grandkids for policies that even liberal economists say are poorly targeted to current needs.”
Now this complaint is as subject to hypocrisy objections as the first two, given the conspicuous contributions to debts and deficits made by Republican presidents Reagan, George W. Bush, and most recently Trump. But more importantly, (a) the whole idea of the stimulus package is to revive economic growth (in part via more robust consumer spending), which would in turn boost federal revenues and mitigate deficits and debt, particularly in the long run, and (b) a lot of the spending in the stimulus bill is directed to McConnell’s grandkids (perhaps not literally, but generationally) or great-grandkids; and (c) the “huge mountain of debt” will only be borne by those future generations if they choose to pay them off, which they probably won’t. “Higher service payments on the debt” might be more accurate, but isn’t nearly so dramatic, is it?
Without further refinement, this argument is dumb, too.
Republican critics of the stimulus package would be more credible if they stuck to criticizing its components on grounds that the bill spends the wrong amounts of money on the wrong beneficiaries, meaning it will not likely achieve its stated goals. Indeed, some conservatives might more convincingly retreat to the age-old claims that government has no business helping people anyway, at the expense of market efficiencies and incurring the moral hazard of letting people think their government exists to get them through hard times. But the dumb arguments are easy and familiar, so we will likely hear them a lot.