Stimulate First, Ask Questions Later

With the stimulus bill, Obama chose urgency over transparency.

President Barack Obama

For President Obama to get a stimulus bill, something had to give. You can have urgency or transparency or a thorough think about things. But you can’t have all three. Forced to choose, Obama chose the fierce urgency of now.

The president heralded a deal reached Wednesday in the House and Senate on a stimulus bill, but the process wasn’t pretty. Creating legislation often isn’t. Instead of finding a Lego piece that fits, lawmakers get a larger one and bite it in half. Never mind the jagged edges.

In this case, not only is the end product ragged—some of the elements aren’t terribly stimulative—but the means were ugly. The differences between the House and Senate bills were reconciled mostly in secret by House and Senate Democratic leaders, three Northeastern Republicans, and White House aides. This is hardly unusual for Washington—which is precisely the problem: It’s not the change Obama promised.

Obama promised his administration would be so transparent that its deliberations would be shown on C-SPAN. Had cameras recorded negotiations on the stimulus bill, it would have looked like a scene from Animal Crackers. As Jeff Zeleny reported, the stimulus deal was so opaque even the people negotiating it weren’t in on what was in it.

Obama and his aides are quick to point out that the stimulus bill includes transparency provisions. So maybe we shouldn’t worry. There’s going to be a Web site, www.recovery.gov, which will allow people to make sure the money from the stimulus bill is being spent wisely. That’s fine as far as it goes. But that isn’t far enough to get us out of the depot. The time for transparency is when a decision is being made, not after it has been issued. Once a piece of legislation has been agreed to, or a project has been put in motion, pointing to a Web site doesn’t create much moral pressure to undo the deed.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Barack Obama’s very own Web site says about transparency in legislative negotiations:

End the Practice of Writing Legislation Behind Closed Doors: As president, Barack Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent. Obama will work to reform congressional rules to require all legislative sessions, including committee mark-ups and conference committees, to be conducted in public.

Pointing out this contradiction is not going to undo the bill.

The other victim of urgency is considered thought (which also can’t be recovered by a Web site). There’s been lots of debate about what to add or subtract from the bill to get a deal. But that’s horse-trading, not consideration. In the rush to get the votes, discussions about national priorities on education, technology, and transportation have happened at warp speed.

True, there has been a lot of public debate about what is and isn’t stimulative, and the president himself spent an hour patiently teaching the country the other night about the bill. But he was talking more about the need for urgency than any particular part of the stimulus package. And in the rush to get a deal, some barely stimulative provisions have gotten into the bill. The alternative minimum tax fix is a large example. At $70 billion, it’s not a small part of the bill, but it’s an anemic stimulus. Other stuff would probably be better.

The argument against transparency, of course, is that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good. That’s eminently reasonable and realistic. It’s an expression we’ve heard often as the negotiations have come to a close. Something always has to fall out of legislation. In this case it was transparency and consideration. Whether they’ve fallen out of the young Obama administration, too, is something we’ll have to figure out in less urgent times.