Once President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, into law March 11, I figured it was only a matter of time until U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, the sole Democratic House member with the guts and brains to vote against the measure, began receiving incoming fire from other Democrats.

I also anticipated it wouldn’t take long for Golden’s reasons for his dissent — that the law was fiscally irresponsible and represented a rejection of bipartisanship — to be validated by reality. I didn’t have to wait long.

The Sun Journal’s March 17 edition contained two items which caught my attention.

The first was a letter to the editor in which the writer complained bitterly about Golden’s vote, suggesting the congressman’s motive may have been to call attention to himself and declaring he “may be in the wrong party or the wrong job.” In case the writer’s message wasn’t clear enough, he added, “All his current ranting is only distancing him from us, the people he’s there to serve.”

The second, a news story, reported that, thanks to the bill, Androscoggin County was slated to receive $21 million in federal funds over a two-year period. The money, $5.2 million more than its entire $15.8 million annual budget, was such an unexpected windfall it prompted Commissioner Noel Madore to muse that 80% of the funds might go towards upgrading the county building, constructed in 1857.

If you’re having trouble trying to understand the link between the year-old pandemic and a building that’s stood for more than a century-and-a-half, don’t bother. There is none. The stately, but somewhat shabby, old structure isn’t suffering from the virus, just a case of deferred maintenance.

Which neatly illustrates one of the major reasons Golden opposed the bill.

The legislation doesn’t just sprinkle money, it showers it over the countryside like April rain — without a clear idea as to who really needs it, how much of it is timely enough to be of help (as, for example, in reopening schools), or whether ballooning public debt will adversely affect the country’s future fiscal health (such as through inflation or debt repayments crowding out other budget priorities).

Golden is not exactly a fiscal hawk. He supported several COVID-19 relief packages in 2020, including one last December, explaining that the latter would “provide additional unemployment assistance for the tens of thousands of Mainers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic… direct more support to struggling small businesses… prevent many evictions across the country… help hospitals and healthcare professionals to treat those infected by COVID-19… aid school systems… provide federal assistance to deliver a vaccine as quickly and effectively as possible.”

When the American Rescue Plan was brought to a final House vote March 10, however, Golden demurred, pointing out that “less than 20 percent of the total spending addresses core COVID challenges that are immediately pressing: funding for vaccine distribution and testing, and emergency federal unemployment programs,” while the rest “duplicate ongoing COVID assistance programs that Congress has already funded or are poorly designed and wasteful of public resources.”

Voting against an earlier version of the bill in February, Golden took particular umbrage with $1,400 checks going to individuals making up to $75,000 and married couples earning up to $150,000. “While those who have lost jobs or had hours reduced ought to receive income support,” he stated, “it is a waste to send a third round of government checks to wealthy individuals making almost three times the average household salary in Maine’s Second Congressional District.” Good point!

Biden and congressional Democrats have pooh-poohed such arguments, claiming that it’s necessary to “go big” in providing relief in order to avoid the sort of slow recovery that occurred under Obama’s rescue plan after 2008’s economic crisis. They’ve also repeatedly emphasized the relief bill is “popular,” garnering support from some 70% of the American public. Both arguments are lame.

The $3.7 trillion in COVID relief Congress authorized last year has already beggared the $800 billion Obama stimulus, which was directed at a different problem requiring a different solution. The 2008 crisis arose from a bursting speculative bubble, causing private credit markets to seize up. A massive, focused infusion of “bailout” loans and grants was successfully mobilized to quickly restore liquidity to the nation’s largest financial and industrial concerns and stabilize the economy. This ultimately led to full employment and a healthy housing market, though arguably these could have been accelerated by more stimulus spending.

As to the popularity of the current legislation, it’s hardly surprising people are thrilled to receive unearned $1,400 deposits in their accounts, courtesy of Uncle Sam. But have they been informed that they’ll eventually pay the price for these borrowed Easter eggs, whether through increased taxes, decreased infrastructure spending, or reduced entitlements? If instant popularity was the only criterion for public policy, we could use the “America’s Got Talent” voting system to formulate legislation.

Then there’s problem of bipartisanship – or lack of it. Biden promised it in his campaign, but, in this first major piece of legislation, he paid only lip service to it. The relief package was rammed through a Democratic Congress using a streamlined Budget Reconciliation process, which avoided the need for a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, didn’t need, and didn’t bother trying to get, Republican support. The only real negotiation that took place was with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democratic fiscal conservative.

It wasn’t as though the GOP didn’t offer an olive branch. A group of 10 Republican senators, including Maine’s Susan Collins, approached Biden with a proposal for a $618 billion aid package. The president held a cordial listening session with them at the White House on Feb. 1, but it proved little more than a photo-op. So much for the new administration creating a climate for future bipartisan cooperation on such critical issues as immigration, climate change and tax reform!

It seems to me that Golden hasn’t been ranting about pandemic relief or seeking attention for himself. Instead, he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness, calling for the kind of principled decision-making that’s sorely lacking in Washington.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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