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Other Than the Weather, It Feels a Lot Like January

The still-being-implemented $150 billion stimulus plan and the increase in the fiscal 2008 deficit that resulted from it became politically acceptable in January when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 400 points and oil prices hit new highs. That makes Friday’s 389-point plunge in the Dow and record spike in oil prices more than a little interesting.

[IMGCAP(1)]The January fall in the Dow and oil price increase dramatically and immediately changed the political situation as far as an economic stimulus plan was concerned. What up to that point had been an absolute wait-and-see attitude from the White House in the face of growing Congressional interest instantly turned into a we-need-to-do-something-now position. The president suddenly started saying he wanted a plan that would be enacted and implemented quickly and anything less was unacceptable. Congress then moved quickly.

That was also the day the budget decidedly moved to the back burner in Congress and the White House this year. Huge increases in federal borrowing became not just acceptable but the preferred policy.

In some ways, the situation today is eerily similar to what happened in January.

So far the White House has been adamant that nothing more is needed. Despite last week’s stock market plunge, Friday’s reported half-point increase in the unemployment rate and the continuing rapid increase in the price of oil, the president is saying that nothing needs to be done. His reason? He says there are signs the stimulus enacted earlier in the year is having a positive impact.

The House and Senate, however, seem far less willing to wait to see how the stimulus plays out. As was the case in January, at least part of the reason for the agita is the election that Congress but not the president has to face.

Also as in January, the economy has replaced Iraq and Afghanistan as the most important issue for voters. There still is no confirmation there’s a recession. In fact, the same argument taking place at the start of the year about whether what we’re going through officially qualifies as a recession continues to rage.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some differences between now and January.

In January, Congressional Republicans didn’t seem to be as ready and willing to break with the White House as they are today. President Bush’s growing lame-duck status and continuing low job-approval rating has made veto overrides with substantial GOP support far more possible and perhaps even likely on many issues.

That was only starting to be understood as the year began. Indeed, in January, the real threat of substantial Republican Congressional defections on a stimulus seemed to be what convinced the White House that it had to change its position or risk having no input on what would be approved.

Neither political party’s presidential nominee was in place in January. The McCain and Obama campaigns, which were not a factor back then, will have a substantial or perhaps even an overwhelming impact on what happens in Washington from now through Election Day.

And, of course, as the price of gasoline seems to indicate, the overall economic situation facing consumers is perceived to be at least no better and likely much worse than it was at the start of the year. Add to that the cost of food and the worsening employment picture, and it’s hard to see how many people could be feeling that what is happening is an improvement.

This means that Friday’s almost 400-point fall in the Dow could be the same type of precipitating event that the January drop quickly became. This is not a guarantee, however. Because this is the next rather than the first 400-point one-day decrease, its shock effect and, therefore, perceived importance may well be less. And while the January plunge was a wake-up call, it has been followed by a number of large one-day swings since then that may make the June drop seem to be not as economically damaging or politically demanding.

But, as was the case in January, on Friday senior House and Senate Members were quoted about additional legislative initiatives to deal with the economy only minutes after trading on the New York Stock Exchange ended.

This is not surprising. Talk about a second stimulus bill began when the first was being put together and some Members of Congress realized that what they wanted to do wouldn’t be included.

But with the White House again taking a very public wait-and-see attitude and few GOP Representatives or Senators wanting to admit that what they supported early in the year didn’t fix the problem, something was going to be needed that would give Members permission to change their position and oppose the president. The almost 400-point drop may be exactly that.

Democrats also seemed to need something dramatic to validate their claim the economy needs more of a boost. The rise in gasoline prices obviously has been discouraging and the source for much debate. But rising gasoline prices are now as predictable as the regular tides. As was the case in January, the Dow’s plunge could be the economic equivalent of the tsunami that is now needed.

There are only four months left in this fiscal year, so any additional economic stimulus or legislation to deal with the effects of the current slowdown such as an extension of unemployment benefits will likely have a bigger impact on fiscal 2009 than 2008. It will increase what was already expected to be another nominal record deficit.

But few Members of Congress or candidates are thinking about 2009 at this point. That makes some additional economic stimulus legislation this year even more likely.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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