The only way Congress could pass a $700 billion economic bailout package last week was to spend an extra $110 billion that the federal government does not have.
How could this happen?
Before lawmakers larded the bailout, it failed. Last week, as it faced its first vote in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner failed to line up the necessary votes to pass what Washington called a "clean" bill to address the credit crisis. Each party blamed the other. Both leaders failed.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami argued Monday that Pelosi did not fail, as she had made it clear that her Democratic Party would deliver 120 votes, but the Republicans would have to deliver 100. Instead, Pelosi delivered 140 votes, but Boehner failed to deliver his quota, yet did not ask Pelosi to pull the bill.
"What you're telling me is that 140 votes is not enough?" Elshami said.
As it turns out, it wasn't.
Because the package failed, it went on to the Senate, where leaders inserted unfunded tax breaks -- called "tax extenders" -- amounting to some $110 billion.
As Robert Bixby of the fiscal watchdog group the Concord Coalition noted, the Senate had passed these tax extenders before, but without paying for them. Those Senate bills did not become law, because House conservative "blue dog" Democrats, who demanded that Washington pay as you go for any tax cuts or new spending, had blocked the Senate's unfunded measures.
The Senate passed the bulked-up billions-dollar bailout with a 74-25 vote -- and with nary a word about the sorry demise of "pay-go" principles.
"If the House had passed the bill, the Senate would have passed it as written by the House, and the president would have signed it," Bixby noted. When the House failed, the Senate had to "fatten it up for the House.
"It worked. Logrolling 101."
Then the House passed the larded measure, after 24 Republicans and 32 Democrats -- including California Reps. Mike Thompson, Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee -- switched their votes from no to yes. You can salute these three for listening to their constituents and changing their votes. Maybe they saved the economy. But maybe they could have voted yes sooner, and thus cheaper.
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense also noted that with 74 bipartisan votes in favor of the Senate bailout, the $110 billion in "tax extenders" were not necessary to pass the package. Observe, he said, that the Senate bailout included $3.3 billion in federal aid for rural schools that replaced revenues they had lost from timber sales on federal lands. Yet Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who had sponsored rural schools legislation, voted against the bill. Someone threw it in for a no vote.
"To some extent, this is a power-play by the Senate," Ellis noted, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tossing in goodies -- even to those who didn't have a hand out.
Or as the National Taxpayers Union's Pete Sepp put it, the bailout package "wasn't a Christmas tree" -- weighted with gifts for politicians' districts -- "so much as it was a garbage truck" -- laden with discarded junk.
Very expensive junk.
UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain believes the Senate did a better job of working across party lines than Pelosi's House. But also, Cain wonders if the big mistake were in bringing the bailout to a vote in the House before the public was ready to support it.
"You can't just expect Congress to be out ahead of public opinion in the modern era," he said.
Perhaps Cain is right. The House bill failed when polls showed public opinion dead set against it. The Senate passed the bill after fear-fueled public sentiment had shifted. The House followed.
Of course, it cost another $110 billion to pass the bill. It always does now. Washington is the town that subtraction forgot.