Stimulus bill just `show business'

October 29, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - It's not only out of the mouths of babes that the truth often comes. This month, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill blurted out that part of the $100 billion economic stimulus package approved in a partisan vote by the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee was "show business." He had it exactly right.

It was evident from the start that the Republicans, mindful that the Democrats control the Senate, were putting forward a bargaining position with plenty of fat in it to withstand the carving knife they knew the Democrats would apply when the new tax-cut bill reached the other side of the Capitol.

Even the Bush White House, which had asked for $75 billion but with a straight face "supported" the larger amount, made it clear that it, too, realized the $100 billion was "show business."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer spilled the beans in observing that the House bill "included several items that the president did not propose."

When House Republican leadership pressed on with the bloated number, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has never seen a tax cut he didn't like, wrapped the flag around the legislation, calling on the Democrats to fall in line in the name of patriotism.

It didn't work, because the other day only three Democrats voted for the package that House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt called "a giant tax giveaway to corporations and the wealthy." All but seven Republicans, however, supported it, enabling the bill to squeak through the House by a 216-214 vote. So much for the post-Sept. 11 spirit of bipartisanship.

As was the case with President Bush's $1 trillion-plus tax cut earlier in the year, this one also favors business corporations and the wealthy. Not only does it provide $40 billion in various tax breaks, it also calls for elimination of the alternative minimum tax on corporations that now don't pay any taxes, and a five-year retroactive payback. The bill would also cut the capital gains tax from 20 percent to 18, another boilerplate GOP boon for investors.

The Republican bill does provide a $300 payment to 30 million low-income Americans who don't pay taxes and thus didn't get the $300 rebate in the first Bush tax cut, and a boost in unemployment and health care funds for the jobless. But the Democrats argue these are insufficient stimuli for bottom-rung workers when compared with the help to be extended to big business.

Once again the debate, in war or peace, comes down to the ideological clash of the two parties. The Republicans say the thing to do is prime the pump of the business machine that then will create more jobs; the Democrats say put money directly into the hands of consumers who then will buy goods and products and get the economy humming again.

In this context, Mr. Armey's chiding of the Democrats to get on the team as good patriotic Americans is a transparent cheap shot. What the Republicans are doing is making a second try to get tax breaks for the business community they failed to get before Sept. 11 ushered in all the flag-waving he now tries to use for partisan ends.

On the other side, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is also invoking Sept. 11 in pushing for help for what he says are half a million workers losing their jobs. In a recent opinion-page piece, he noted the $15 billion federal bailout of the airline industry while $2.5 billion sought by the Democrats for jobless payments, training and health care for airline workers was stripped from the bailout bill.

Predictably, with the Democrats in the driver's seat in the Senate, the House bill will face considerable surgery before a version that both parties will be able to swallow reaches President Bush's desk. Now that the House Republicans have done their bit of disingenuous "show business," it's time to get back to political reality and pass a realistic and constructive stimulus bill.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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