"CONGRESS IS LIKE A whiskey drinker," President Lyndon Johnson once observed. "You can put an awful lot of whiskey into a man if you just let him sip it," he said. "But if you try to force the whole bottle down his throat at one time, he'll throw it up."
The 36th president and former Senate majority leader was referring to Congress's ability to produce legislative outcomes -- too much activity inebriates the system. Congressional Democrats learned the hard way this week as the bloated economic stimulus bill stalled in the Senate. Moderation in all things--including the speed with which they grow the federal government--is a virtue. The problem is House Democrats just didn't have the temperance to just say no.
That lack of self-restraint is now producing political headaches. After eight years of bumping heads with a Republican president, many liberals in Congress believe voters just gave them the keys to the spending liquor cabinet. There is so much pent-up demand for funding new projects, Democrats run the risk of ignoring President Johnson's admonition, creating a fiscal--and political--mess.
The current economic crisis may demand speedy action, but it's not a mandate for irresponsible spending. The bill the Senate is considering calls for $65 billion more than the House-passed version, at a time when skepticism about the stimulus plan is growing. Both Gallup and Rasmussen polling demonstrated a sharp drop in support for the legislation in the last several days as more and more stories about its content hit the light of day. Democrats may equate a mandate for change with a license to spend, but in doing so they could quickly alienate fickle independent voters.
House Democrats see the stars aligned for a generational expansion of the federal government. Writing in National Journal last week, Ron Brownstein quotes a Democratic staffer who tells the unvarnished truth: "This is a once-in-a-25-year opportunity to [implement] a lot of our agenda." That's probably correct. But they need to slow down and look to President Obama to serve as the designated driver. Republicans understand the House bill looks more like a Trojan horse for a liberal spending agenda than an economic stimulus bill. They were ebullient following last week's vote, when all GOP members voted no. "It was the most unifying vote in several years," one Republican lawmaker told me. "The outpouring of support Members received from their districts after the vote and over the weekend was gratifying," a House leadership aide added. Many indicated they heard from constituents saying the vote restored their confidence in the Republican party.
The key to the unity, according to several members of the House leadership, was not only the Democrats' excess, but a positive Republican alternative. As Republican leader John Boehner said on the House floor, ". . . our proposal will create 6.2 million jobs over the next two years, about twice as many as the (Democratic) bill and at about half the costs."
Twice the jobs at half the cost! Why in the world wouldn't Congress want to pursue that approach? That's what makes people so angry about Washington. It sounds like the fleecing of America continues as the House Democrats use the economic meltdown to inaugurate New Deal 2.0 with the next generation's money.
But the spending revelry looks like it will be tamped down in the Senate. How the bill moves ahead is unclear, but one thing is certain--the price tag will be reduced.
Maybe this was all part of a grand plan. The House serves up what looks like a super-sized liberal Happy Meal and then lets President Obama work with the Senate to drink the Slim-Fast shake. Perhaps. But it appears the House won't go on a diet without a fight. Finishing the legislation by next Friday--when Congress is scheduled to begin a weeklong district work period--will prove challenging.
Over the next ten days President Obama has a chance to help reshape some of the excesses in the legislation. He even has a chance to win more Republican support. But he'll have to reign in the appetites of some big spending House members to pull that off.
Maybe the White House needs to remind congressional Democrats they have at least four years--not four weeks-- to expand the size and scope of government. But outside of Washington, I get the sense Americans are growing angry about being taken as suckers again, as Democrats in Congress use an economic crisis to promote a political agenda. Big government liberals are ready to party, but they should spend in sips, rather than gulps, lest voters take away the keys to the liquor cabinet.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.