As the Election Nears, a Second Stimulus Is Less Than Certain

Posted July 21, 2008 at 4:38pm

We’ve been hearing about the possibility of a second economic stimulus bill since the first one was enacted in February. Much of that original talk was to reassure those who didn’t get their preferred provisions in that quickly adopted bill that they would get another chance later in the year.

[IMGCAP(1)]Given the still-growing concern about the economy and the perceived limited positive impact of the first stimulus, it’s hardly a surprise that talk about a second is picking up again. With daily headlines about some real or perceived economic malady, still falling consumer confidence, proposed help for big financial institutions and an election that is only 15 weeks away, it would be far more surprising if an additional economic legislative effort for individuals wasn’t being discussed on Capitol Hill.

But regardless of whether it would be good economics, there are substantial questions for both political parties about whether a second stimulus bill truly makes political sense right now.

The Republican dilemma is simpler to describe than the one facing Democrats: How can they vote for a second stimulus bill without seeming to agree that the economy a Republican president is being blamed for mismanaging is in terrible shape? And if the economy seems to be in worse shape and Republicans take most of the political heat for it, how can GOP Members of Congress running for re-election possibly avoid making matters worse for themselves in November by voting for a second stimulus?

The situation becomes even more difficult for Republicans because the stimulus would likely include some additional spending.

A bill with additional spending could or perhaps almost certainly would be vetoed. That would put House and Senate Republicans in the difficult position of either voting to oppose a president of their own party and, therefore, validating the position of their Democratic opponents, or not supporting a stimulus bill that voters could very well see as necessary.

Congressional Republicans could decide to do what John McCain has done by running away from President Bush on the economy and voting enthusiastically for a second stimulus bill no matter what it includes. But at a time when some within the party are saying the GOP has lost its way on spending, it’s not at all clear how popular that position would be with the Republican rank and file.

That might make the best political choice for the GOP no second stimulus bill at all. Most Republicans supported the first bill and they may prefer to use that vote to demonstrate their economic bona fides rather than to gamble on a second that seems to be fraught with extreme political risk.

The Democratic dilemma with a second stimulus bill mostly has to do with its timing.

First, does it really make sense to create an election issue for Republicans by passing a bill now that increases spending? Because most of the benefits from the additional spending would occur after the election, wouldn’t a second stimulus bill enacted between now and October present Democrats with the worst of all possible worlds by reigniting the big spenders issue without anyone seeing the value of that spending before Election Day?

Second, if a second stimulus is enacted, would that mean Democrats would have to bear more responsibility for the economy than is now the case? At the moment, and despite its substantial Democratic support, the only stimulus that has been enacted is considered a Bush administration initiative. If it’s not working, or if it’s working but the economy is still perceived to be getting worse, that mostly reflects negatively on the White House and Congressional Republicans. Pushing a second stimulus may allow the responsibility and blame to be shared.

Given their now widely presumed gains in the House and Senate in November, Congressional Democrats may also believe that it makes more sense to wait until next year to consider a second stimulus bill because they’ll be in a better position to determine what it includes.

Waiting until next year also makes sense if Democrats think there’s any chance the economic situation will change by the time the next Congress and president assume their responsibilities. A better-than-expected outlook could eliminate the need for a second stimulus or change the magnitude of what’s considered. That would provide additional options in other areas for the new administration, House and Senate because the deficit would not have already been increased by as much.

A worse-than-expected outlook in January not only would make the need for a second bill far more certain, it would also firmly fix the blame for the economy on the outgoing administration and make it more likely that the next president and Congress would get the credit for dealing with it.

This last point should not be underestimated. In 2001, the Clinton administration was blamed for the economic downturn and the incoming Bush administration received the credit when it ended. That argument would not have been as unambiguous if some type of economic stimulus had been enacted as 2000 came to a close.

Therefore, like the GOP, when it comes to a second stimulus bill the best political choice for the Democrats might well be no bill at all before Election Day.

That does not, however, mean absolutely no activity between now and then. Hearings, debates and proposed legislation make sense under these circumstances.

But unless the economy takes a dramatic and unambiguous turn for the worse in the next few weeks, it’s not clear whose political interests will best be served by that activity turning into concrete action.

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