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Scot Lehigh

Go long, Senator Brown

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / July 7, 2010

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TO: SENATOR Scott Brown

Re: Hawks, forests, and trees

Ah, Senator, you got a minute? Let me say upfront that I’m encouraged by your concern about the federal fiscal deficit. For the last decade, Washington has put today ahead of tomorrow, merrily cutting taxes, hiking spending, and sending the bill to the next generation. So it’s good to have a Massachusetts lawmaker who wants to change that mindset.

But you’re missing the forest for the trees — and giving your fellow deficit hawks a bad name in the process. Our real fiscal problem is our long-term structural deficit, not the short-term budgetary imbalances, which have come in considerable part because of the recession-driven revenue fall-off and assorted recovery measures. Yes, we’ll have to pay it back, but because those aren’t recurring expenditures, they are not the big problem. What’s more, that spending actually helps stabilize and stimulate the economy.

Don’t believe me? Well, take it from David Walker, former US comptroller general and now, as president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a leading deficit hawk. “While the current deficits are large, they don’t represent the real threat to the future of the country,’’ he said. “The real threat is the medium-to-longer term structural deficits that will be here after the economy has recovered.’’

So you’ve been firing at the wrong target by opposing the extension of unemployment benefits unless the cost is offset. At a time when joblessness is at 9.5 percent, that pretty much defines being penny-wise but pound foolish. Look at the job numbers. So far, we’ve only had one truly encouraging month. That was April, when 290,000 jobs were created, some 241,000 in the private sector. But in May, the private sector added only 33,000 jobs, and in June, just 83,000.

Unions will press you on a lot of silly stuff, Senator, but on this one, they’re right. With a fragile recovery only starting to chip away at the eight million or so jobs lost in this recession, those families need help. And in the grand scheme of things, the $34 billion that extending unemployment benefits will cost shouldn’t be a roadblock.

No fiscal falcon with a proper balance of economic and fiscal priorities is going to fault you for supporting that extended aid.

“As a deficit hawk, I wouldn’t worry about extending unemployment benefits,’’ said Bob Bixby, president of the Concord Coalition. “It is not going to add to the long-term structural deficit, and it does address a serious need. I just feel like unemployment benefits wandered onto the wrong street corner at the wrong time, and now they are getting mugged.’’

A couple of days before the holiday weekend, you seemed to realized you’d misstepped here, and came out with a proposal to fund those benefits and other state aid by tapping stimulus dollars. Your staff is shy on details about those dollars, but given the less-than-robust recovery, using them for stimulus, as intended, would hardly be economically wasteful. Further, the notion that “believe it or not, there is about $37 billion in stimulus money just sitting in a Washington DC slush fund,’’ as you claim on your website, is very misleading. No, not all the stimulus dollars are out the door yet, but “the stimulus money was all intended for specific uses,’’ according to Bixby. “I wouldn’t say there’s a slush fund.’’

What’s more, your stand highlights this contradiction. On the one hand, you insist that any extension of unemployment benefits must be paid for. On other hand, you supported the Senate bill on Wall Street regulation, which wasn’t — and then balked at House efforts to impose a tax on banks to offset its $19 billion cost.

Frankly, you look like you’re making tactical, cover-your-tail-feathers decisions rather than thinking things through. Let me put this diplomatically: Over time, that modus operandi won’t build you a reputation for seriousness of purpose.

So here’s a suggestion. As a US senator, you have easy access to the best experts in the country on any issue you wish to discuss. Pick up the phone, ask for advice — and listen. You’ll be a much better lawmaker for it.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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