Rescue in slow motion?

January 30, 2008

If you wonder why voters are often disgusted with inside-the-beltway politicians, you might consider what's happening this week to the $146 billion economic stimulus bill on which President Bush and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives reached uncharacteristically quick agreement.

The bill would quickly put tax rebates from $600 to $1200 into the pockets of 111 million Americans, and everyone - economists, business leaders, central bankers and even normally balky politicians - agrees that swift passage is an urgent priority if it is to have any effect in helping dodge a dangerous recession. But in Washington, where nearly every piece of legislation is viewed as an opportunity to reward friends and punish enemies, frustration and failure are always lurking nearby.

In this case, the House passed the bill yesterday with an overwhelming vote, reflecting a painstakingly negotiated compromise between Democrats, who gave up added food stamp aid and extended benefits for the unemployed, and Republicans, who accepted less aid to business and a bar on rebate checks for individuals earning more than $75,000 a year.

But there is a looming danger that the bill will stall in the Senate, where Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee, is proposing a package that adds rebates to wealthier taxpayers and more aid to the poor. Mr. Baucus is not alone. Some Republicans also want to tinker with more aid to business and wider distribution of aid. Others have talked about adding money to build more roads and to help homeowners avert foreclosure. But the stimulus package is not the vehicle to address these concerns.

In this confrontational era, every significant piece of legislation is fair game for meddling - even a national economic rescue package. But providing this money to people to help jump-start the economy is vital, and lawmakers should resist their costly passion to add an array of expensive and potentially controversial projects to the legislation.

Mr. Bush recognized the danger and rightly warned Monday night that loading up the bill is unacceptable.

Congressional leaders say they hope to give Mr. Bush something acceptable to sign by Feb. 15. But it shouldn't be a question of hope. There must be no doubt that the money needed to bolster the economy will be in the pockets of Americans this spring. The Senate could improve its reputation by acting on the House legislation this week.

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