What in heaven’s name does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have against honeybees?
That question haunted my days after I saw the Kentucky Republican on TV fulminating about a provision he found in the proposed government stimulus package. The provision, he said, would provide $150 million for “honeybee insurance.”
“This is nonsense,” he said, as if he took it personally. You had to think he got stung as a kid or maybe caught a local swarm in the act of recruiting aphids for Al Qaeda.
So I resolved to get to the bottom of this scandalous expenditure.
But first, a little background.
McConnell’s Sunday appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” was part of a full-scale GOP assault on the Obama administration’s stimulus bill, which was passed last week by the House with zero Republican support. The package is being debated this week in the Senate. The GOP, as I write, is thinking about a filibuster.
Yet the Republicans seem to have trouble coming up with more than irrelevant or trivial arguments. Appearing on ABC on Sunday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), for instance, owned up to calling the stimulus plan the “worst plan since the 16th Amendment paved the way for the income tax.”
Because the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913, this rather dated DeMint’s mind-set. In any event, he didn’t offer a proposal on how to fund the government, including his paycheck, without an income tax. He just complained that the stimulus plan involved a lot of spending. He would prefer that it all be in tax cuts, apparently on the grounds that the tax cuts enacted under the Bush administration in 2001 bequeathed to us an economy that has performed so well.
On NBC, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), said she wanted the bill to have more spending on infrastructure, but she wanted it to be on military infrastructure, even though much of that winds up as scrap metal in Iraq and Afghanistan, not bridges and schoolhouses in the United States.
She said she would strip from the bill all the “social spending that is not going to create jobs,” but when pressed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), her on-air debating partner, she agreed to preserve some social spending, such as unemployment benefits. The effect of this exchange was to leave Hutchison sounding as though she made up her position as she went along.
Very little of these discussions addressed the principle underlying the stimulus bill. The idea is that when the private sector withdraws from the economy by cutting back on capital spending and laying off workers, it is up to the government to take up the slack, if necessary via deficit spending.
This isn’t radical thinking. It’s endorsed by, among others, Martin Feldstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s chief economic advisor and is consistently voted by his peers as the Economist Least Likely to be Mistaken for a Democrat. Feldstein opposes most of the tax cuts favored by the GOP, especially business tax cuts. To be fair, he isn’t entirely enamored of President Obama’s proposal -- he thinks it should spend more on programs that will produce more short-term employment and less on open-ended programs.
Yet the plan before the Senate includes hundreds of billions of dollars in near-term programs and projects. There’s $90 billion for school construction and renovation and educational grants and $79 billion for state educational programs, most of which would be spent within two years. Of the $27 billion for highway construction, most would be spent within four years.
The bill also appropriates billions for the kind of forward-looking projects we’ve neglected during the last two decades, such as broadband infrastructure, water and anti-pollution programs, and alternative energy research, which will produce long-term economic benefits for the entire country.
Is it possible to slip pork into a bill this massive? Well, duh. But pork is often in the eye of the beholder. House Republicans this week released a list of $19 billion in provisions they called “wasteful” (i.e., 2% of the total package). But the list includes numerous projects that many Americans would support and that would plainly stimulate our limping construction and manufacturing sectors. For example, the purchase of new computers and vehicles for federal agencies, the building of fire stations and other public facilities, and the upgrade of rail lines.
Is this the best the GOP can come up with? Or are Republicans just determined to undermine the recovery effort? It’s hard to disagree with Obama’s complaint that “modest differences” over the package are being inflated to stall the whole program.
That brings us to McConnell and his problem with “honeybee insurance.” It turns out that the Senate minority leader took his cue from Neil Cavuto of Fox News, who has been carrying on about the topic for more than a week. Their campaign was joined Tuesday by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who stood on the floor of the chamber challenging “any member to come and explain what that provision was.”
I’m no senator, but I’m pleased to inform Vitter that it is, in fact, a disaster insurance program for all livestock producers. Beekeepers obviously would be minor beneficiaries next to, say, cattle ranchers, so it’s a tad bit dishonest to label the whole program “honeybee insurance.”
The provision simply continues a program enacted by Congress last year, overriding a veto by President Bush. In other words, the Senate voted on it twice in 2008 -- once to enact and once to override. Connoisseurs of political comedy will see the punch line coming: McConnell and Vitter voted yea both times.
So it turns out that McConnell isn’t really against honeybees. He’s only using them to pretend that he’s got a principled objection to a stimulus plan aimed at pulling the country out of the most severe recession in decades.
The honeybees, and the rest of us, are merely collateral damage.
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
You can reach him at michael.hiltzik @latimes.com and read his previous columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik.