The Senate’s flawed priorities

THE SENATE’S FLAWED PRIORITIES…. The Senate yesterday took up a “major package of tax breaks, tax increases and unemployment pay,” which carried a $140 billion price tag. The vote wasn’t even close — Democrats needed 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster, and they mustered 45.

The ongoing emphasis on the deficit, instead of the economy, continues to be frustrating.

“$77 billion or more of this is not paid for,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, “and that translates into deficit spending and adding to the debt, and the American people are right: We’ve got to stop doing that.”

No, sir, they’re wrong, and we don’t. It’s hard to say this loudly enough, but it really doesn’t make sense to offset stimulus spending, at least in the short term. The point of the money is to get the economy moving faster, to give people cash to spend…. When you’re trying to expand the economy, you need to use debt to put more money into it than would otherwise be there. […]

Unemployment is at 9.7 percent right now. It’s extraordinarily high. And it’s extraordinarily high because not enough jobs are being created to absorb all the workers who got laid off during the recession. Killing their unemployment benefits wouldn’t magically make more jobs appear. It would just make those people poorer, and because they’d be poorer, they’d have less to spend.

It’s especially annoying to think Ben Nelson knows what “the American people” are clamoring for. For one thing, the public isn’t necessarily the best arbiter of what is and isn’t the best economic policy — it’s why voters elect representatives to consider evidence and make wide judgments. For another, does anyone seriously believe “the American people” will be happier with a weaker economy? Will Ben Nelson boast about deficit reduction to struggling families?

The next step in the Senate is consideration of a weaker bill — remember the maxim: to get a bill through the Senate, it necessarily must be made worse — which is $20 billion cheaper. Much of the savings comes through less generous benefits for the unemployed.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said he wanted a cheaper bill, and then made it slightly more expensive by adding additional housing tax credits. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wants the package to be cheaper still, not to achieve any specific policy goals, but because she considers smaller price tags to be necessarily better, regardless of consequences.

A vote on the weaker spending bill may come today.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.