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Timing Is Wrong for Phony Thrift

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, January 08, 2009

As the government contemplates spending very large sums of money, it is reassuring to know that somebody still worries about waste. Or it would be reassuring, if only that somebody were not Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who promises that he and his fellow Republicans will "protect taxpayers against the rush to spend their money."

This loud pledge of thrift and transparency by the GOP leadership might be more persuasive coming from people who had displayed such inclinations anytime before last year's election. But these are the same politicians who squandered astronomical amounts when they controlled the federal budget.

And today, at a moment when economists of all stripes agree that we must spend big and spend fast to forestall a depression, the timing of the Republican conversion is as dubious as its credibility. To delay the stimulus spending proposed by President-elect Obama for the sake of partisan posturing is to risk disaster.

The Republicans' sudden reversion to the solemn frugality of their forebears would be amusing were it not so dangerous. Having established a record over the past decade or so as the wildest wastrels in the nation's history, they now present themselves as straight-laced accountants who simply cannot abide a misspent dime.

Consider McConnell, chosen again by his fellow Republican senators to oversee policy and politics for their shrunken caucus. Last year, he barely achieved reelection in Kentucky -- and only won after a barrage of television ads touting his mastery of the Congressional pork barrel. He flew frantically from one town to another, boasting that he had brought home more than $500 million in federal discretionary funds during the past fiscal year alone, largely for projects that other states and cities must finance locally.

Even when many other Congressional Republicans realized that their awesome waste and abuse had tarnished the party's image and led to their ouster in the 2006 midterm, McConnell resisted reform. Just over a year ago, the conservative Club for Growth lambasted him for opposing a Democratic proposal to eliminate budgetary "earmarks," which have led to so much corruption and abuse on Capitol Hill. The club complained that his "support for pork projects in the Omnibus [Budget Act] is a sad statement about the priorities of the Republican leadership in the Senate."

Certainly nobody can say that the senior senator from Kentucky has failed to make his mark with those projects. His campaign for a sixth term last autumn might as well have been a tour of the many federally funded sites that literally bear his stamp. In Owensboro, residents can stroll through Mitch McConnell Plaza, an urban renewal project that is the pride of that riverfront town. In Lexington, students can take advantage of the wonderful Mitch McConnell Distance Learning Center at the university's law school. In Louisville, joggers can stretch their legs along the Mitch McConnell Loop Trail in the city's new $38 million park.

There is all that in the Bluegrass State and much, much more -- thanks to taxpayers across the country whom McConnell is so eager to protect.

None of that means the minority leader is unique among all the other politicians in either party, although he is plainly worse than average in avarice and hypocrisy. Nor is it wrong, obviously, for political leaders to propose safeguards against waste and abuse in the enormous stimulus package.

Yet the budgetary concerns professed by the Republican leadership, whether feigned or sincere, must be balanced against the urgency of action. On Jan. 2, The New York Times explained what is at stake with admirable clarity on the front page. According to a survey of 50 top professional economic forecasters, the recession could reach bottom before the end of the second quarter in 2009, and growth slowly resume.

America could, in other words, avoid the most frightening scenarios of mass unemployment, ruin and hunger that now confront us -- but only if "the Obama administration and Congress … come through with a substantial public stimulus package, as much as $1 trillion over two years." And for the optimistic scenario to be possible, that package must pass within weeks, not months, after the new president's inauguration.

In other circumstances, the fiscal fakery of Mitch McConnell and his friends would be just another funny scene from the decline and fall of the Republican right. But it is hard to laugh when they seem determined to take the rest of us down with them.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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