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By his own standards, President Barack Obama’s first major legislative victory was a tainted win.
At the outset of the stimulus debate, Obama said his package would set a “new higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight.” He wanted a bill free of earmarked spending for parochial projects, and talked of incorporating good Republican ideas. His team floated the goal of winning some 20 Republican votes in the Senate for legislation that — if Obama’s campaign pledges were met — would have been posted for comment on the White House Web site for five days prior to passage.
As if deliberately setting out to make Obama look naïve, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid secured, at the last minute, $8 billion for high-speed rail, with an eye to building a magnetic-levitation line that he supports between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Representatives from Wisconsin and Indiana got a tax break benefiting motorcycle and RV manufacturers in their states. On it went. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s defense was to say, sure the bill had “porky amendments,” but no one really cares about such picayune matters.
The House wrote the bill with no Republican input, and when the House and Senate met in a conference committee to hammer out differences in the bills that had passed the different chambers, Republicans were shut out except for those lone three Republican senators who (out of 219 total Republicans in Congress) supported the legislation. Obama himself attacked Republicans for wanting to pass nothing, a blatant straw man.
When the House and Senate reached a deal, the 1,073-page bill was rushed toward passage in roughly 24 hours, with little opportunity for lawmakers, let alone the public, to review it. For sheer heedlessness, the process rivaled that of Franklin Roosevelt’s Emergency Banking Relief Act. When FDR’s team arrived at a legislative package in the middle of the night in March 1933, the chairman of the House Banking Committee took it onto the House floor, exclaiming: “Here’s the bill. Let’s pass it.” Only three or four copies existed, Jonathan Alter writes in his history of the 100 days, The Defining Moment, and no one read it before passing it on a voice vote.
In short, the stimulus bill was sausage-making worthy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Obama the good-government noodge should have been appalled that his earnest assurances of a new way of doing business were so quickly crushed underneath Nancy Pelosi’s high (and highhanded) heel. If, that is, these were Obama’s first-order concerns, and they aren’t.
To govern is to choose, and Obama has chosen effectively to abandon his commitment to a different, more open process. It’s more important to get the substantive achievement than to worry much over how it is achieved, even if it means tolerating legislative strong-arming reminiscent of Tom DeLay in his glory days. “My bottom line is not how pretty the process was,” Obama told reporters last week, in complete reversal from three weeks ago.
At the heart of Obama’s much-discussed pragmatism is a willingness to shift the means by which he attains his enduring ends — namely, his political ambition and his policy goals. If his pledge to take public financing stands athwart his ability to bury John McCain under an avalanche of private donations — well, out with the pledge. When the Rev. Jeremiah Wright can give him an entree into Chicago politics, he’s a spiritual mentor; when he obstructs Obama’s presidential ambitions, he’s under the bus. Given the choice between — as Ron Brownstein of the National Journal has described it — passing more public investments in three weeks than Bill Clinton passed in eight years, or honoring the spirit of bipartisanship, it’s not even close.
Obama is making the shrewd choice. No one cares about process as much as the impressionable young people and journalists he already has firmly in his hip pocket. All that matters is the state of the economy, and whether the stimulus bill ultimately lives up to its name — tainted passage or no.