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Authors: Eric Cantor;Paul Ryan;Kevin McCarthy

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Then, on January 23, 2009, in a meeting with the president and his economic advisers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Republican leader John Boehner and I presented the president with our alternative stimulus bill.

Now, it’s important at this point to say a thing or two about protocol in Washington. When you’re invited to a meeting at someone else’s house—in this case, the White House—you generally don’t bring handouts. You generally let your host determine the agenda. But we had worked very hard, and the stakes were very high. Besides, as President-elect Barack Obama had himself said, no one party has a monopoly on good ideas. That had encouraged us. We had good ideas. So I made sure I was polite when, at that White House meeting, I said, “Mr. President with your permission, I’d like to hand something out.” And with that, I passed out copies of our five-point alternative stimulus plan.

What we proposed at that meeting could not have been more different than the bloated $787 billion monstrosity that was eventually passed by the Democratic Congress. It was a simple, direct way to create jobs and help our economy by focusing on small businesses. Here are the highlights of the plan I handed the president:

Reducing the lowest individual tax rates from 15 percent to 10 percent and from 10 percent to 5 percent
Allowing small business to reduce its tax liability by 20 percent
Ensuring no tax increases to pay for spending
Assistance for the unemployed
A home-buyers credit of $7,500 for those buyers who can make a minimum down payment of 5 percent

Not only was our plan fair, understandable, and more direct than the Democratic majority’s bill, it delivered twice the bang for half the bucks spent in the Democratic plan. In fact, Ways and Means Ranking Member Dave Camp of Michigan and his staff used the Obama administration’s own economic model to analyze our alternative stimulus bill that they determined would create twice the jobs at half the cost of the bill that was eventually passed.

After I handed him the plan, President Obama’s response was encouraging, albeit in a backhanded kind of way. “Eric, there’s nothing too crazy in here,” he said. And he was right, of course.

We genuinely wanted to find a way to produce the best economic recovery bill we could. Paul, Kevin, and I and the other members of the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group purposefully checked our ideology
at the door when we formulated our plan. Would we have much preferred a bill that eliminated the business income tax and lowered all tax rates? You bet we would have. But we didn’t come into the meeting naïve enough to think that the new administration would follow such a plan, rejecting their own Keynesian beliefs. We knew that they would dismiss a Republican plan like that out of hand. Instead, we were realistic and we made an honest, good faith effort to work with the administration and came with an incremental, pro-small-business, and free-market alternative.

Helping small businesses, the engine of job creation, was of special concern to us. One of the ways we proposed to alleviate the tax burden they face each and every day was by reducing the effective tax rate by 20 percent. The mom-and-pop stores and restaurants that I visited at home in my district were telling me this was the tax break they needed to invest in new equipment or new hires.

So there I was, explaining to President Obama and his economic brain trust—including Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag, chief economic adviser Larry Summers and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—what deli owners, shopkeepers, and service providers in Richmond were telling me they needed. And as the meeting continued, I could tell the president’s team wasn’t getting it. Even though these were some of the smartest people in the country, they were
entirely
disconnected from the realities and concerns of small businessmen and -women.
They were all talented, conscientious public servants, but their experience—and their hearts—just weren’t in the private sector. To put it another way,
this was an administration of the government, by the government, and for the government
—not entrepreneurs or the private sector.

Still, we had what the press in Washington calls a “frank exchange” of views and ideas in the meeting. The Republicans present argued that lifting the tax burden on individuals and businesses was needed to create jobs. But instead of doing that, while we tried to reason with the president, Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-MI) and the Democratic leadership in Congress had turned the stimulus bill into a bloated grab bag of taxpayer-funded government gifts to special interests. How could we support a bill that spends $12 on new cars for the federal government for every $1 in tax relief to small businesses? How could we expect a bill that contains a whopping $219 billion that the Congressional Budget Office had told us wouldn’t be spent until October 1, 2010—over a year and a half away—to stimulate the economy now?

For their part, President Obama and his advisers said that while they shared our desire to kick-start the economy, on some issues we were just going to have ideological differences. Fair enough, I thought. We
do
have differences, and I took them at their word that they were willing to work with us to iron them out for the good of the country. But then, the president played a trump card that, although I didn’t know it at the time, foreshadowed the battle to come.
After sparring for a bit on tax policy he stopped and said simply, “Elections have consequences… and
Eric
, I
won
.”

In other words: it’s my way or the highway. Deal with it. The “post-partisan” president sure had a big partisan streak.

Later, President Obama and his spokespeople would describe our opposition to the stimulus bill as our coming out as the party of “no.” I well remember meeting later with the president in the Cabinet Room of the White House (ironically, at a supposedly “bipartisan” gathering of House and Senate leaders) in which he accused us Republicans of making a calculated, political decision to oppose him on the stimulus bill instead of doing what was right for the country. He charged then (incorrectly), as he later would repeatedly, that we had already made the decision to oppose the stimulus bill before we even heard his proposals. “Stop listening to Rush Limbaugh,” he scolded us, “and do what’s right for the people.”

It was too much for me to listen to without speaking up. I reminded the president that, despite his assurances that he was ready to work with us on an economic stimulus bill, he had outsourced the actual creation of the bill to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. They had produced—without allowing any
input from us—a near trillion-dollar-high tidal wave of cash pouring into the Democrats’ favored programs. It was
that
bill, one that was actually introduced the night
before
we were to meet with him in the Capitol to discuss the stimulus, that the press had reported that we would oppose. And it was that bill, drafted by the majority leadership—without any opportunity for Republican input—that was forced to a vote in the House the very next day.

Far from us having made a political decision to oppose the president, the liberal House leadership had made the political decision to draft the bill without our input and ideas, and the president had made the decision to allow them to do so—all the while insisting that he was ready to work with us on getting Americans back to work. When we met with the president in the Capitol, we were ready to work with him to forge a bipartisan bill. Instead, President Obama embraced the partisan Democratic leadership bill and went on to accuse us of bad faith.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the White House political brain trust would pursue a strategy of having the president speak happy words of compromise while the Democratic leadership did the dirty work of shutting out Republican ideas from the bill. President Obama’s approval ratings at the time were in the stratosphere. Somewhere around 70 percent of the American people approved of him personally at the end of January 2009. Washington insiders and media pundits thought it was insane to oppose so popular a president on a bill that spread so much money
around.
Time
magazine wrote that, “flagrantly opposing a wildly popular new President is risky, especially when any payoff could take years.” And unnamed White House officials even whispered to the media that we would pay the price for opposing business groups who supported the Democratic stimulus bill in the fatalistic belief that only government spending could jump-start the economy.

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