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The Missing Rationale

There's been a lot of highly critical commentary over the last few days about the thundering absence of any clear policy rationale underlying the $100 billion or so in reductions in the economic stimulus package secured by the so-called "centrist" group of senators. Today's Washington Post op-ed by one of that group, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) hasn't exactly helped matters.

Yes, Specter cites a couple of cuts (Title I education spending, preventive health measure) and suggests that they represent types of spending that would be nice, but can't be afforded right now. Why? Because they add up to the amount of money that Specter and company have arbitrarily decided must be cut from the legislation. It's a classic example of circular reasoning. Or if you prefer, as Ross Douthat put it, Spector possesses a "mind incapable of thinking about policy in any terms save these: Take what the party in power wants, subtract as much money as you can without infuriating them, vote yes, and declare victory." Similarly, Jonathan Chait observes:

It's not like there's some firm cap that forced the Senate to cut helpful spending programs. The cap is there because Specter decided to put it there, an act that flies in the face of the very economic theory that justifies the bill in the first place.

More specifically, unless I've missed it, the "centrist" group has yet to offer any sort of explanation for why aid to budget-strapped state governments took such a conspicuous hit in their "compromise." I mean, the fiscal crises affecting nearly all of the states are real. The recession-deepening cuts they are already making in personnel, in infrastructure programs, and in direct services to low-income Americans, are very real. Do the "centrists" think there's enough money in the package as amended to head off these highly unhelpful developments, or do they just not care? Who knows?

A cynic might observe that all of the four senators that Arlen Specter identifies as the organizers of the "centrist" coup-by-amendment--himself, Ben Nelson, Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman--happen to come from states where the governor is of the other party.

But another factor, particularly given the timing, might have been a strange little statement put out by the Republican Governors' Association last Thursday urging Congress to reject the stimulus legislation entirely, because governors really didn't need the money. In quotes from RGA chairman Mark Sanford of SC, Gov. Sarah Palin of AK, Gov. Rick Perry of TX, Gov. Bobby Jindal of LA, and Gov. Haley Barbour of MS, the statement complained vaguely about "strings and mandates" accompanying the bill (although much of it either increases the federal share of costs for existing programs, or, in the case of the single largest program killed by the "centrists," made $25 billion available for absolutely anything the states wanted to do), and called instead for tax cuts. This maneuver was obviously intended to undercut a statement made a week or so earlier by the bipartisan National Governors' Association asking Congress to act quickly on the stimulus legislation--and noting the urgency of aid to states--and scattered press reports that many Republican governors were at least privately expressing support to Obama.

Mark Sanford has been so adamant in his opposition to what he calls a "bailout" of the states that Rep. Jim Clyburn from SC secured language in the House version of the stimulus bill allowing state legislatures to bypass governors and apply for federal assistance if the governor refuses to do so.

I don't know if the "centrist" senators or their staffs read any of this "don't help us" stuff, but it makes about as much sense as any other explanation of the specific steps they took to reshape the stimulus legislation.