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Stimulus Flawed but Necessary; Dingell’s Still Hard at Work

The core of this column is a celebration of a remarkable career that still keeps motoring on. But I can’t let the week go by without some observations on the stimulus package.

[IMGCAP(1)]There are three goals here. The first is quick stimulus, the equivalent of shooting adrenaline into the veins of a sick patient. The second is to alleviate suffering, for those unemployed, hungry or worse off in a truly bad economy. The third is to add investments, in areas where not all the payoff will come in the next year or 18 months, but where the long-term value will grow our economy in ways that will ameliorate the fiscal stress we will face in the coming decade.

Using these criteria, both the House and Senate plans are flawed. In some ways, I am more disappointed in the Senate bill. The $70 billion alternative minimum tax fix — put in at the behest of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who did not even support the package —violates every principle of those opposing a stimulus package, namely a worthy goal that has nothing to do with stimulating the economy.

To keep in a package of tax cuts for well-to-do families who will not spend the additional money they get, and cut out funds for school construction and some infrastructure spending, including information infrastructure, that would be stimulative, and to shortchange cash-starved states and localities, is foolish at best. The same is true of cutting funding for science and health research.

At the same time, neither the House nor the Senate bills have included significant funds for defense, where a lot of needed priorities that would be beneficial and would gin up the economy are going wanting. Simply start with replenishing the supplies and equipment we will leave in the deserts of Iraq, much of which came from state National Guards that could use it back, and that will get factories humming across America.

But here is the bottom line. Our economy, and the global economy, are both in dire straits. If we fail to act to get things moving, we could fall into a global deflation, which will cause enormous pain for years to come. A sizable portion of the economic distress is psychological; people simply stopped spending money last October, and stopped investing in the securities that provided a large share of the capital for companies and individuals to borrow. A stimulus package has to provide some real stimulus, but it also has to convince people that government is finally working — that help is on the way even if it will take a while — to get them to open up their wallets.

If I had been in Congress, I would have swallowed hard and voted for the package before me, to provide a bipartisan jolt of confidence in the economic system. I wish Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had treated the bill using the template of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, and included key Republicans in the initial negotiations. But I wish even more that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had not engaged in the classless act of urging their colleagues all to vote against the bill even before President Barack Obama met with the Republican Conference, or been absolutely gleeful at their self-perceived political victory when they were unanimous in opposition. The reaction of Senate Republicans when real negotiations were available for all to join was even more narrow, self-centered and against the public interest. Don’t these people see how high the stakes are?

On to a happier topic. Today is a banner day in the House. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) breaks the record for longevity in the chamber, an astonishing 19,420 days spanning more than 53 years. To those new to Congress or Congress-watching, they may know little of Dingell other than his appearance in the news in November when he lost his committee chairmanship to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). But to any student of American history, Dingell’s service is more than just an ironman record.

Dingell was a hero of the civil rights movement, a pioneer of the environmental movement, a leader in health policy and health care reform, and a passionate defender of Congress and its prerogatives against presidents of either party who encroached on legislative turf or violated his tough standards of propriety. And to those who have the privilege of knowing him — at least other than being the recipient of one of his famous “Dingell-grams” to executive officials or bureaucrats, or sitting opposite him during a fire-and-brimstone oversight hearing where on occasion he went too far — he is gracious, warm and genuine, a good human being and a wonderful friend.

Dingell was a key player in the voting rights debate in 1964 and 1965. He was a key player in protecting wetlands and wilderness areas, water quality and endangered species. He authored the benchmark National Environmental Policy Act in 1970. He introduced his first national health insurance plan in 1957, following his father’s commitment to the issue, and was a key player in the creation of Medicare and nearly every other health policy advance in our lifetimes.

Much of this will probably come as news to newer lawmakers who have seen him fighting for the auto industry or pursuing his passion against gun control, and view him as a throwback to the past. That he may be — but much of that represents the finest hours of our public policy and public life.

When Cal Ripken broke the seemingly unbreakable record of Lou Gehrig’s for consecutive baseball games played at 2,130, many fans assumed he would stop soon thereafter; Ripken went on for more than three seasons to play a remarkable 2,632 consecutive games. Back in late 1994, after the Republicans broke the Democrats’ 40-year stranglehold on the House majority, many reporters and others assumed that John Dingell would soon retire — that he would not be able to handle minority status after his own 40 years in the saddle.

I told them they were wrong. John Dingell was, is, and always will be a legislator. It is in his bones, dating back to his childhood growing up around the House through his father’s 22 years of service (begun at the same time that Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the presidency) before his own. He would adjust to minority status and find ways to be productive and influential. And indeed he did, for a dozen years. His long pattern of being open and civil to Republicans and developing a relationship of trust with his ranking minority members meant that he could count on some reciprocity when he was the ranking minority member.

The same is true now. Dingell has lost his chairmanship again, but he will not retire soon, he will not sulk, he will not be vengeful. He has a lot of legislating to do, and the best chance since 1957 to see his dream of comprehensive health insurance reform make it into law. I expect he will work hand-in-glove with Waxman to achieve that goal, and will go on after breaking the longevity record and do as Cal Ripken did — extend it into territory unlikely ever to be challenged.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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