When Jim Thune took the Senate floor in the midst of the economic stimulus debate, the Republican from South Dakota came with visual aids: posters showing that a trillion dollars stacked in $100 bills would reach 689 miles into the sky or wrap around the Earth nearly 39 times.
He was illustrating how much the stimulus could cost taxpayers. But, after more than a week of wrangling over the nearly $800 billion bill, Thune might as well have been talking about how far apart congressional Republicans and Democrats have become in just the second month of the 111th Congress.
President Obama's post-election honeymoon period is over. It didn't even make it past House Resolution 1-otherwise known as the economic stimulus package-that passed both the House and Senate along party lines. In the House not a single Republican voted for the Democrats' bill. Only three moderate Republican senators broke ranks and voted for the Senate version.
The parties disagreed over the best way to revive the sagging economy, with Republicans favoring tax cuts and Democrats pushing government spending. But the debate also concerned ethics: Republicans argued that Democrats were cheating by rushing through an "emergency" package of nonemergency items instead of going through the usual checks and balances process of numerous hearings and markups with time allowed to read the bill and debate its provisions. In the usual process, money spent in one area is supposed to come from savings in another area.
Noting that the bill included $200 million for hiking trails, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said the "hodgepodge of pet projects" found in the package would "open the floodgates of wasteful spending."
"This bill is not a stimulus, it's a mugging," he said.
Was Obama responsible for the rush to spend without due process or balancing cuts? Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist, said that Obama erred by providing only a broad outline of a package: That then allowed Democratic congressional leaders to weigh the package down with the standard liberal wish list. Others argued that Obama was getting what he wanted without having to take responsibility. In either case, Jillson's prediction is probably accurate: "Obama has to expect some choppy water ahead."
One of the choppiest passages is likely to involve debate about what Heritage Foundation expert Robert Rector calls a "stealth" attempt by Democrats to reverse the only major legislative success story of the "Republican revolution" of the mid-1990s: welfare reform. Through that reform, welfare caseloads dropped more than 60 percent from a record 5 million families in 1994 to 1.6 million families today, with many formerly sunk in dependency and treated as helpless gaining jobs and self-respect.
The question now is what's happening to those new workers in this recession. The evidence is not clear, but New York University political scientist Larry Mead uttered the intuitive: "In a recession we expect work to be less available." Mead said the stimulus bill does not alter the basic work requirements at the heart of the 1996 welfare reform law.
Both the House and Senate versions of the stimulus package contain language providing a $3 billion to $8 billion expansion of emergency funds in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Programs, or TANF, which is a key component of the current welfare program. Such an expansion has wide support, but those funds will be available to states only if they increase their welfare caseloads, according to a report issued by the Republican staff of the House Ways and Means Committee.
This staff analysis concluded that these emergency funds and other stimulus provisions could undermine welfare's current work requirement and increase welfare loads. If the emphasis is on increasing the number of welfare recipients rather than helping them to start their own businesses or be enterprising in job pursuits, we could be back to the bad old days of the long-term welfare plantation. As CATO Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner put it, "We know that welfare is a poverty trap. You don't want to encourage people not to work."
The Heritage Foundation's Rector says that buried within the 679 pages of the House stimulus bill is a "welfare spendathon" that could top $800 billion over the next decade: "It's a Trojan horse bill. The bill moved so fast and this is such a complicated idea that it will take time for people to figure this out."
Defenders of the stimulus plan's welfare provisions say they want to give states more TANF funds so they can respond to recession contingencies-but under existing TANF law the federal government already has a $2 billion TANF "contingency fund" that can rapidly get money to states with rising unemployment. If Democrats wanted to increase the current contingency fund, they could have done so. Instead, the stimulus plan changes the rules by tying payments not to rising unemployment but to increased welfare caseloads, thus giving states an incentive to get more people on the welfare rolls.
Neoliberal Slate commentator Mickey Kaus smells an ideological rat: "Why use the aid specifically to encourage expansion of welfare? . . . At the very least the extra aid to the states shouldn't be triggered by caseload expansion. (You could, for example, give states aid in proportion to their local unemployment rate.)"
Brookings Institution analyst Ron Haskins says he doesn't think "the intention of Congress is to overturn the 1996 reforms." Maybe, but this is round one, with the left so far winning. Round two will be next year when the 1996 reform law is up for reauthorization.
Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that Sen. John Thune hails from South Dakota.