Congress to the Economy: You're On Your Own

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Tom Daschle discusses the blocked economic stimulus bill

Alan Greenspan has been saying it for two weeks. Wall Street has been saying it for two months. Wednesday, Tom Daschle said it too — the recovery is coming, even if it'll be coming in on little cat's feet over the next 6-9 months or so, and there's not much Washington can do between now and then that would arrive in time to help.

And so Tom Daschle found it politically possible, and even advantageous, to throw up his hands Wednesday and walk away from the competing pair of economic stimulus packages that have been stalemated in the Senate since before Christmas. "I think we've given it plenty of time," Daschle told reporters Wednesday before settling for voice-vote passage of the one thing neither party could deny was at least a nice idea: extending 26-week unemployment benefits by an extra 13 weeks. As for the rest of that proposed $75 billion of tax cuts and spending (in what combination we'll never know), it was no longer worth the money.

After all, this an election year, and for Daschle and the Senate Democrats — who started their seasonal offensive with calls for fiscal discipline — money is already tight. Bush, still riding high in the polls, has sent over a budget that's heavy on military spending and puts the onus on the Democrats to keep their own programs trim or risk running even larger deficits over the next three years.

In the end, the economic stimulus package died so that its political parts could live on. Tax cuts? Bush's State of the Union already began to fold "economic security" and the "war on recession" into any and every part of the GOP's 2002 agenda — their part of economic stimulus will be back, with friends. For Daschle, the calculated retreat means more chances to hold those tax cuts up to voter scrutiny for November — and more room in the budget to beat back Bush anywhere else he can.

Because five months after Sept. 11 and nearly a year after this recession officially began, the recovery is indeed at hand. Productivity and GDP growth both notched encouraging upticks in the last three months of 2001. Factory orders are edging up, business inventories are down, and monthly unemployment actually dropped in January (although the decrease was largely attributable to about a million people suspending their job search in frustration).

Congress and the economy are finally on the same page. Both are poised to kick off a very important season, a season that could make or break fortunes in both places. The drivers of both are looking toward the future, whether it's purchasing managers gauging the future demand of consumers or politicians gauging the future demands of voters, and neither expect their efforts to really start to flower until about 6-9 months from now.

And while pundits and commentators will be carefully taking the pulse of both all spring and summer, ordinary Americans probably shouldn't expect anything in the way of concrete results until after November.