At least the U.S. House of Representatives is consistent. Democrats continue to show a surprising lack of discipline in drafting legislation, providing their GOP counterparts with every opportunity to do what comes naturally -- attack an economic plan not based solely on tax cuts.
It was a close call, but condoms lost out in the final version of the $819 billion bailout bill the House passed Wednesday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her cohorts left themselves open to the condom controversy by including a Medicaid family-planning initiative in what was supposed to be an economic stimulus package. Maybe they were thinking the spending bill would lead to an entirely different kind of stimulation.
It was a minor flaw in a bill that has larger weaknesses and some positives. It was also red meat for Republicans and the kind of strategic misstep that makes it easier to understand a 244-188 outcome. That the Obama administration failed to gain a single GOP vote -- or, for that matter, prevent 11 Democrats from opposing the bill -- is a signal that bipartisan change remains a work in progress in Washington.
The Senate can restore some confidence in the legislative process -- and in the stimulus plan itself -- with its version of the package. One area that needs more attention is infrastructure and transportation spending. In Minnesota, less than two years after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and less than a year after passage of the transportation bill, the debate has special meaning. However, decaying infrastructure is an issue of national significance, and the stimulus bill provides an opportunity to get the nation's transportation system back on the right track while creating jobs in the process.
Few were predicting the current economic crisis early last year when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Govs. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California formed a nonprofit coalition called Building America's Future to advocate for infrastructure as a national priority. Bloomberg and Rendell would not put a price tag on their prescription when they visited the Star Tribune Editorial Board last summer. But earlier this week the American Society of Civil Engineers said it would take $2.2 trillion to adequately repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure over the next five years.
The House package includes $63.5 billion for infrastructure, while Minnesota Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had been pushing for $85 billion. At $63.5 billion, infrastructure spending represents less than 8 percent of the total stimulus package -- a major missed opportunity to fix more of the nation's highways and bridges and increase funding for transit. With a looming $45 million operating deficit in the Twin Cities, Metro Transit faces the possibility of service cuts that would undermine worker mobility and lead to more job losses. Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell asks the right question: "Does it make sense to hire a construction worker at the same time that you're laying off a bus driver?''
State economist Tom Stinson is on the record touting the benefits of infrastructure spending on repairs and other projects that can be started immediately. That type of investment -- rather than subsidizing expensive Cobra insurance -- makes economic sense.
The Senate now has a chance to do some repair work on the stimulus legislation. A larger investment in infrastructure should be on the top of a bipartisan agenda.