Busy, Busy

Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:34pm

Anticipating enactment of a dramatic, transformative agenda in the 111th Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) last week released a 2009 work schedule of 137 days, including many five-day weeks, indicating that Congress will be busy indeed.

The schedule contained an optimistic adjournment date of Oct. 30 and anticipates that House Members will be in town and voting most Fridays, a big change from Tuesday-through-Thursday schedules of the past.

It’s good that leaders are putting Members on notice that they should look forward to working hard. No doubt most Democrats are looking forward to using their huge majorities and control of the White House to push through an expansive agenda.

That agenda starts with an economic stimulus package whose price tag and contents are ballooning by the day. It will contain infrastructure projects, for sure — roads, bridges, levees, pipelines, school buildings — plus aid to states and cities, middle-class tax relief, expanded unemployment and food stamp benefits and down payments on future transformation of America’s energy and environmental policy and the health care system.

There’s no question that voters handed total control of the government to Democrats in order to effect change, but — without raining on anyone’s parade — we’d offer a few cautionary notes both to Congress and the new administration.

One is that haste really does make waste. When he named Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag his new White House budget director, President-elect Barack Obama said it would be his responsibility to ensure that projects funded in the stimulus package were meritorious and not political.

But it defies human nature to think that, when a gigantic pot of money is on offer, everyone with a need for funding won’t try to find a way to share in the largess. For instance, the Wall Street Journal combed through the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ $73 billion infrastructure wish list and found any number of sports parks, tennis centers and parking garages along with congestion-reducing highway programs.

The point is, Congress needs to be careful — or as careful as it can be — in allocating the $300 billion, $500 billion or $1 trillion in stimulus, all to be legislated upon by Jan. 20, lest it become dominated by pork on the model of the infamous Alaska “Bridge to Nowhere” or botches such as FEMA’s poisoned trailers.

Our second caution is: Don’t forget oversight. Just as the Republican Congress fell down on its job to act as a reliable watchdog during the first six years of the Bush administration, Democrats will be strongly tempted to go easy on the new Obama administration.

It will take courage for Democrats in Congress to act as a check on a popular Democratic president, but it will serve the country — and the party, as well. Republicans lost Congress at least in part because they never said “no” to President George W. Bush or their own appetites. So, it’s good that Democrats plan to be busy next year. They also need to be careful.