George Santayana is spinning in his grave. It's starting to look like Congress learned nothing from the shortcomings of previous "panic" economic bailout and stimulus legislation, as lawmakers rush to repeat their mistakes.
Democratic leaders, at the urging of President-elect Barack Obama, are working through the holidays to craft a massive "economic recovery" plan. They want a bill passed within a few weeks, before Mr. Obama is even inaugurated.
Mr. Obama has proposed as much as $775 billion worth of spending over the next two years, most of it on infrastructure improvements including highway, bridge and public school upgrades. Lawmakers seem inclined to boost the total to $850 billion, and some economists have suggested spending up to $1.3 trillion -- an amount that represented the entire federal budget only 15 years ago.
The taxpayers who will finance the debt on this legislation, however, remember what followed this fall's bailout for the banking sector: no accountability within the government or financial firms as to how hundreds of billions on dollars were spent (heck, many took their billions and "went on retreat"), little improvement in the availability of credit, and a whopper of a blow to the growing budget deficit. Just this month, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., testified during a special federal hearing in Las Vegas that lawmakers had little understanding of what they'd done beyond writing a big check -- let alone how it was supposed to help "Main Street."
Because Mr. Obama's stimulus plan will likely cost even more newly printed money, we hope Congress will lean toward openness and careful consideration this time around.
Enter Washington's Republican minority, whose credibility on fiscal responsibility was precisely zip during most of the Bush administration's years in power. They're looking for a way to re-brand themselves as the stewards of limited government, and see this big-spending scheme as a perfect opportunity to do so.
"Taxpayers are in no mood to have a single dollar wasted, but it's not yet been explained how their tax dollars will be protected ... in a rush to spend their money," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a Monday statement.
He and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio indicated a willingness to work with Democrats, as long as hearings are held and the final bill is posted online for public review for one week before Congress votes.
Even in today's increasingly desperate economic climate, these are reasonable requests. Unlike the banking bailout, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public works projects will require months of contract reviews, provided state and local transportation agencies are prepared for them.
At the very least, a clear and detailed record should be created, laying down a clear rationale for how each proposed expenditure is supposed to contribute to reversing the economy's downward spiral.
Or is there to be no "thinking outside the box," falling back instead on "every special-interest piece of lard we had on the back burner, paying back organized labor and whoever else brought us to the dance"?
How will lawmakers make sure selected projects can be completed in a timely fashion, for example -- immune from obstructionist, frivolous litigation? The public needs to know.
Republicans hope to wield enough influence to wedge some tax relief in the bill. Such policies do have a proven record of growing the economy.
At a minimum, Congress should now embrace transparency, rejecting the back-room "handouts for my pals" that have driven the printing presses for the past few months.