Both the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress are discussing the possibility of some sort of economic stimulus package in the wake of a report from the Labor Department showing that unemployment rose in December from 4.7 to 5.0 percent. While the number of jobs increased overall during the month, the private sector shed 13,000 jobs.
The White House has indicated that the President will announce today the broad principles of a stimulus plan, which will likely involve tax breaks rather than increased spending. The President is said to be considering tax rebates similar to the rebate checks mailed to taxpayers in 2001, as well as extending the existing Bush tax cuts. The latter idea has been panned by economists (including Martin Feldstein, former chief economic adviser to President Reagan) since the Bush tax cuts do not expire until the end of 2010 and therefore extending them could not possibly do anything to counteract a recession taking place today. What's more, the resulting increase in the budget deficit would actually hurt the economy overall.
Democratic leaders and several economists point out that spending could be very effective in stimulating the economy and certain types of tax breaks could be as well, if they were carefully structured. A recent forum on this topic sponsored by the Brookings Institution included Feldstein, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and other economists. They all agreed that any stimulus should be "temporary, timely and targeted." Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and several other Democratic leaders have echoed these three principles.
The Democratic and Republican House leadership met on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a bipartisan effort to enact a stimulus package. No deal was reached, but both sides have suggested they could work together to pass legislation quickly. Some House Republicans have indicated that they might offer amendments that would extend the Bush tax cuts but that they will not make their support for a stimulus package conditional on passing such an amendment. Meanwhile, Rangel has said that he is open to including some business tax breaks, even though he may not agree with them, in order to get a bill passed.
However, some dark clouds appeared to form over the discourse on the stimulus package on Friday morning. It was reported that the White House was considering $800 rebates for income tax payers in the 15 percent bracket. Taxpayers in the 10 percent bracket would get only part of the benefit the President is proposing, and those not even in the 10 percent bracket would get nothing.
Meanwhile, the top three Democratic presidential candidates all have their own stimulus plans, although it's not entirely clear how influential they will be on the issue.