In politics, all that’s bad is good again. History repeats itself not because we’re stuck on an unbreakable cycle, but because we fail to recognize (or misdiagnose) patterns. If, for example, we are wronged, we will likely see that wrong quite clearly. But when we wrong others, we may not see it simply because it is by our own hand and targets not our own body. In this way, we risk authorship of our own demise.
For the most recent example of this phenomena, look no further than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (and similar post-9/11 legislation). On the surface, the similarities are few – one addresses national security, the other economic stimulus. And I suspect some will take umbrage on equating the curtailment of civil liberties with increases in spending. But for those who can look pass partisan framing, the commonalities are abundant.
Both the PATRIOT Act and the stimulus package predicate their success, to some extent, on fear-mongering. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, while both horrible and horrifying, did not put us on the brink of Armageddon. The lives lost totaled less than two percent of the U.S. population and that is the worst our enemies have been able to muster. Likewise, while our economic picture is bleak, it is not an unprecedented disaster. The Great Depression and the oil crises of the 1970s were more malignant by several measures.
Amid this heightened sense of doom, supporters of both the PATRIOT Act and the stimulus package demanded that immediate action be taken. As Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, noted in Michael Moore’s controversial “Fahrenheit 9/11,” many members of Congress did not have the time to give the PATRIOT Act legislation a thorough reading. Similarly, it would be safe to say that sufficient time has not been allotted for members of Congress to thoroughly digest the 600-plus page stimulus legislation.
Another similarity can be found in the willingness of both PATRIOT backers and stimulus backers to vilify their opponents. Those who questioned or opposed the PATRIOT Act were demagogically denounced as radical or anti-American. In a similar fashion, stimulus backers such as Paul Krugman (who should know better) have referred to stimulus critics and foes as partisan hacks who can be safely ignored. The view that PATRIOT foes recklessly ignored America’s safety has evolved into the view that stimulus foes are recklessly ignoring America’s economic well-being. In both instances, it has proven simpler to smear the critics rather than address or rebut their criticisms.
Interestingly enough for both PATRIOT and stimulus foes, neither piece of legislation is as bad as it could have been. The PATRIOT Act included provisions which sunset, or expire after a certain period of time unless legislation is enacted to extend them. Author James Bovard also states that Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, who introduced the bill, worked to eliminate even more intrusive provisions. Similarly, the stimulus package includes tax cuts (which have been known to actually stimulate the economy from time to time) and not nearly enough spending for the likes of Krugman and fellow economist Joseph Stiglitz.
In the years since the PATRIOT Act’s passage, its overreach and invitation for abuse is apparent. In a 2007 audit, the Justice Department found that the FBI used the tools provided by the PATRIOT Act to illegally spy on American citizens. The ostensibly national security-minded PATRIOT Act was also used for purposes decidedly unrelated to national security, such as enforcing copyright infringement and investigating drug traffickers.
Since the stimulus package has yet to be passed by the Senate as of this writing, there can be no ill effects to measure. The legislation does, however, contain a number of components unrelated to stimulating the economy, such as funds for family planning. Given the sheer scope of the money involved (over $800 billion) and the size of the bureaucracies it will be filtered through, misuse and malfeasance seems more a question of “when” and “how” rather than “if.”
Of course, there is a learning opportunity here and an easy one at that. The chance to avoid repeating a mistake requires only that we not develop amnesia. But when spend-happy big-government Republicans are suddenly unified in their stimulus opposition on the grounds of fiscal discipline (suppressed titter) and once-skeptical Democrats take up the mantle of heavy-handed toadying yes-men, that may be too much to ask.