Dry Powder

However one feels about the merits of an automaker bail-out, it’s important to recognize the political opportunity cost of pushing one through. Legislators spent two weeks of a special session trying to make this happen — using time, energy, and political capital which might have been spent on something else. Still worse, they failed, which means that another battle will ensue in January, taking up time, energy, and political capital that might be used to push forward other key priorities of the new president and Congress.

And it will be a battle, despite the new majorities. Brian Beutler explains:

Now assume that everyone who wasn’t there this time (except Biden) shows up next time. Kennedy, Kerry, and Wyden will probably vote yes. But Alexander, Cornyn, and Graham will probably vote no. That’s 39. With a vote this close, the parties’ whip operations will be in full swing. Can Republican leadership get two more votes? Hard to say, of course. Snowe, Collins, and Specter are probably pretty safe. Maybe Lugar, too. But is Bond? Can the Democrats count on Begich? Or will he follow his Democratic colleagues from Montana and vote no?

It’s hard to know for sure, but this is all a very, very long way of saying that votes on major legislation will still be very, very tough. I personally have mixed feelings about bailing out Detroit, but it’d be a mistake for Democrats and liberals who fully support it to proceed under the illusion that, with a 58 or 59 member caucus, Reid can build whatever bill he wants and assume the votes will be there.

So, what do you want? Do you want a large, quality stimulus? Do you want an energy and climate change policy? Health care? Every trip into the upper house is going to require a concerted effort to twist arms and call in chits until something can be achieved. How much of the new leadership’s scarce political resources are we willing to spend on firms that deserve to be in bankruptcy, that will have to cut tens of thousands of jobs even under the best case scenario with a generous bail-out, and that have spent years and billions of dollars fighting progressive policy priorities?

Meanwhile, we should all remember that the Senate is a dangerously undemocratic place. The combination of highly unequal representation and supermajority rules means that tiny minorities can wield veto power over policies enjoying extraordinary popular consensus. This gives the ruling party every incentive to focus as much power as possible in the executive, which is likely to make Senate minorities dig in their heels still further. Now may not be the time, but it’s a state of affairs that needs some serious attention.


  1. Perhaps there is some consensus in the political class, but every poll I’ve seen shows the consensus of the country is in opposition to a bailout.

  2. Vadranor says:

    It is likely that an auto rescue bill when the new Congress convenes will be subsumed in the economic stimulus legislation and the whole package will be considered in the context of budget reconciliation. Budget reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered.

  3. Would have been good to see Reid keep the auto bailout bill on the floor after the cloture vote, forcing the GOP to keep talking – to do an old-fashioned filibuster – to block a vote.

    I had an interesting conversation with the staffer who took my call at Sen. Cardin’s office on Friday. I asked why the bill wasn’t still on the floor, forcing the GOP to filibuster it, he said that there was no sense in “punishing” the legislators who voted against it.

    Why was that, I asked – weren’t they punishing the 1 million people who’d lose their jobs if GM and Chrysler went under?

    It would be a lot more than 1 million, he replied.

    OK, 3 million, I retorted – if the GOP legislators were punishing 3 million American workers, what was wrong with punishing them? Or was Sen. Cardin confident that GM would survive until the new Congress could pass a bill?

    No, he wasn’t, the staffer said. OK then, I replied, wasn’t it urgent to try to pass this thing now, or at least make sure Americans knew who was responsible for killing their jobs?

    He said that maybe it was, but the Senate needed to move on to other things – vetting Obama’s nominees, and preparing the ‘second stimulus’ bill so that it would be ready for Obama’s signature when he took office.

    True, but if GM fails in the meantime, that’s going to be just as big an anti-stimulus. Where does that leave you?

    By now, the poor guy was desperately trying to get off the phone. He said he’d pass my thoughts on to the Senator, and signed off. Can’t blame him.

  4. dave.s. says:

    GM has been making craptastic cars for years. There’s not enough room in the market for three Detroit companies. I’ve been trying to buy US – three Fords in the last ten years – and keep getting kicked in the teeth with transmission troubles at 40-60 thousand miles. I’ve rented some GM cars, and come away with a clear feeling that I didn’t want to own them. So if we’re going to try and rescue some US companies, the car companies are not my preferred candidates.

  5. The point of a GM bailout isn’t to save GM for the long haul. Obama and other pro-bailout pols have to make noises in that direction, but a successfully restructured GM producing energy-efficient cars would be a miracle, not a reasonable expectation.

    The point is that a GM bailout is the quickest, most effective jobs program we can manage right now. The infrastructure’s already in place to employ all of GM’s existing employees, and the continued manufacture and of cars will pay a good deal of their wages (ditto the workers at the dealerships, the parts suppliers, etc.), plus a good deal of the benefits promised to retired GM employees.

    If we want to employ a similar number of people repairing roads and building SUPERTRAINS, it’s going to cost a lot more money, and it’ll take awhile for it to happen. Like with giving money to state governments so they don’t have to cut services and lay people off, the quickest and best stimulus right now is the stimulus that keeps jobs from getting cut in the first place.

    We want the SUPERTRAINS too, because they’ll act as a short-term stimulus (just not nearly so immediate), and will also pay off as a long-term investment, which GM almost surely won’t.