Stimulus pushback — from the other direction

STIMULUS PUSHBACK — FROM THE OTHER DIRECTION…. As the debate and negotiations over the stimulus have unfolded, we’ve heard plenty about conservatives’ opposition, and quite a bit about efforts to make the right happy. It’s encouraging, then, to see at least some attention directed towards those who worry that the stimulus package is missing an opportunity to go much further.

For some House Democrats, the problem is less a matter of balancing the short and long term than a shortage of focus and will on the part of the administration. Their disappointment centers on the relatively small amount devoted to long-lasting infrastructure investments in favor of spending on a long list of government programs. While each serves a purpose, the critics say, they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and fall far short of the transformative New Deal-like vision many of them had entertained.

The bill to be voted on today includes $30 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for public transit and $1 billion for inter-city rail — less than 5 percent of the package’s total spending. Administration officials have said they did not push for more infrastructure spending because of concerns about how many projects are “shovel ready” — a view that House members say is held most strongly by Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s chief economic adviser.

Even though most House Democrats say they will back the plan, many reject the administration’s argument, saying that infrastructure projects could easily be expedited, that the economy will need additional infusions for years to come and that the real reason for shunning infrastructure was to make room for tax cuts. Obama, with a public mandate to do something big, is missing a rare opportunity to rebuild the country, they say.

“Every penny of the $825 billion is borrowed against the future of our kids and grandkids, and so the question is: What benefit are we providing them? What are we doing for the country? It’s the difference between real investment that will serve the nation for 30, 50 years and tax cuts, and that’s a very poor tradeoff,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). “I go to my district and people say, ‘Yeah, I can use 10 extra bucks a week, but I would rather see more substantial investment.’ We’ve gone through a couple bubbles that were borrowing and consumer-driven. We want a recovery that’s solid and based in investment and productivity, and that points us at building things that will serve us decades to come.”

Administration officials reportedly see the stimulus package as something of a down payment on the president’s broader priorities, with more investment to come in subsequent spending bills. This specific rescue proposal may be a unique opportunity, which may not come up again, but we’ll see.

But this piece is a reminder of just how odd the debate has been at times. The most common areas of political discussion have been about what additional taxes can be cut, and what additional spending programs can be eliminated.

Though the more progressive arguments have received far less attention, it’s encouraging to see at least some pressure coming from the other direction.