If there is any doubt left about the urgent need for a stimulus package, members of Congress need only look at the grim economic numbers released Friday. Nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in January, the highest number since 1974. The national unemployment rate rose to 7.6 percent, the highest since 1992. And consumer borrowing fell in December for the third straight month, the longest stretch in 17 years. Every day that lawmakers spend trading partisan shots over fiscal policy, more Americans lose their jobs, watch their retirement savings evaporate and see more businesses shut their doors.
Congress needs to quickly reach an agreement on the stimulus package and send it to President Obama. As Obama said Friday, the House and Senate packages are not perfect and changes still can be made. But at roughly $800 billion, they are in the ballpark in terms of size and general priorities. While Obama pledged to bring a new bipartisanship to Washington, stonewalling Republicans are leaving him with little choice but to turn up the pressure and demand action. Debating whether the legislation is a spending package or a stimulus package is pointless, and whining about being shut out of the process is a delaying tactic when there is no time to waste.
Not a single Republican voted for the House package, and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona threw public fits about the amount of spending in the Senate version (a tentative Senate deal Friday night lowered spending significantly). But more broad tax cuts are not the answer. Nervous consumers have demonstrated they would rather save the money or pay off debt than spend it, and businesses are too fearful to expand or hire more workers. It is going to take a large infusion of public capital to slow a recession that is quickly deepening.
In such times of crisis, it should not be this difficult to come to an agreement that would draw broad support from moderates in both political parties. Too much spending? Cut the $20 billion for health information technology, the $11 billion to improve the electrical grid and the $4 billion for more police officers. Those are all worthy priorities that can be debated and voted upon in separate legislation.
Too many tax cuts? Eliminate $145 billion for broad tax credits and $13 billion for college tuition tax credits. The broad tax credits would do little to help the economy, and the tuition tax credits can stand on their own in another bill.
If congressional Republicans won't listen to Democrats in Washington, they should listen to Republican governors such as Florida's Charlie Crist who are urging action. Florida's unemployment rate is over 8 percent and rising, and the state faces a budget shortfall of more than $3.5 billion in 2009-10. The House stimulus package would send Florida more than $4 billion in additional Medicaid money and more than $2 billion for construction projects. That would not cure Florida's problems, but it would help ease the pain.
The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good — or even the acceptable — stimulus package. The general goals should remain creating jobs, extending benefits to the growing roll of unemployed workers and approving so-called shovel- ready projects that could be under construction within 18 months. And lawmakers should remember the stimulus package is not the only tool that will be needed. There is the remaining $350 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and Obama introduced members of an economic recovery panel on Friday who will make more suggestions.
To his credit, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez participated in a bipartisan group that worked toward a compromise. Those sorts of efforts need to continue. Voters made it clear in November that they want change in Washington, and Obama is making a good-faith effort to deliver. Now Congress needs to do its part and move quickly to agree on a stimulus package. If it fails, as Obama warned Friday, a crisis soon could become a catastrophe.