Standing Firm Against the Stimulus

Posted February 10, 2009 at 6:05pm

National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors President Dirk Van Dongen appeared to be the last man standing in the downtown business community on Tuesday, as he continued to ask Senators to vote against a nearly $850 billion economic stimulus package that narrowly passed the chamber.

“The policies that this organization supports do not change as officeholders change,” Van Dongen said. “The fact of the matter is they’re calling this thing stimulus — and parts of it are — but huge parts of it do not meet the definition of stimulus. That’s a huge abuse of scarce resources.”

In a letter to Senators the day before, Van Dongen wrote that the stimulus bill was “fatally flawed legislation” and that “spending close to a trillion dollars and getting it wrong would be a travesty.”

Meanwhile, as the longtime conservative lobbyist held his ground, prominent GOP-leaning business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the bill’s passage.

Following the Senate’s 61-37 vote, Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president for governmental affairs, said that “while this legislation is not perfect and should be improved in conference, it is a positive step forward.”

“It offers a much-needed shot in the arm for employers trying to stay afloat, workers concerned about keeping their jobs, and those who have lost work because of the crumbling economy,” Josten said in a statement. “We are pleased to see the inclusion of several tax initiatives as well as spending provisions to provide stimulus, create jobs, and to get our economy moving.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, too, appeared to come out in favor of the bill, while a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business wouldn’t rule it out, saying, “We’re not going to comment on it until we see a final bill.” A spokesman for the National Restaurant Association was also noncommittal, saying the group “has not taken a full position.”

In its letter to Senators yesterday, NAM wrote that the bill “may be considered” for their final key vote tally in the 111th Congress, a decision that stands to tarnish 15 GOP Senators’ perfect NAM voting records from the previous Congress.

“NAM members believe a balanced tax and investment package designed to help job providers and the people who depend on them will go a long way to spur economic revitalization,” NAM Executive Vice President Jay Timmons wrote in a letter on Tuesday.

“To this end, we strongly support a number of provisions in the Senate version of H.R. 1 that will have a positive and immediate impact on our economy,” Timmons wrote.

The narrow vote included three Republican defectors, Sens. Arlen Spector (Pa.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

According to NAM’s online scorecard, 16 Senators — all Republicans — had 100 percent NAM voting records in the 110th Congress.

Of the 16, 15 voted against the $838 billion package: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), John McCain (Ariz.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Kit Bond (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Bob Bennett (Utah), Orrin Hatch (Utah), John Cornyn (Texas) and John Ensign (Nev.).

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of Commerce, also scored 100 percent on NAM’s key votes in the 110th Congress, but he did not vote on Tuesday.

Van Dongen declined to comment on his fellow brethren in the business community’s apparent change of heart, other than to say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Everyone agrees there’s a certain amount of good in the package, a certain amount of baggage,” he said. “You reach the conclusion that the glass is half full or half empty — we reached the conclusion that it’s less than half full and, therefore, we encouraged [lawmakers] to vote against it.”

American Business Conference President John Endean said Van Dongen had undoubtedly done his homework on the issue, sampling his membership for their take on the $838 billion deal.

Endean speculated that “nobody has the seniority that Dirk has without making sure that their members are on board when you make a public statement like that.”

An analysis by CQ MoneyLine also suggests Van Dongen’s lonely march this week is in line with his group’s membership.

The Wholesaler-Distributors’ political action committee has given 89 percent of its campaign contributions to Republicans since 1980. And last cycle, Van Dongen’s group gave 99 percent — or roughly $161,000 — of its political donations to Republicans.

“I can guarantee you that he’s checked with his members,” Endean said. “You can’t survive taking a position your members don’t like.”

Endean also credited Van Dongen for sticking to his conservative principals, while other groups either avoided the political high road or, in the case of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, backed the legislation outright.

“It’s safe to say he says what’s on his mind and that makes him different from 90 percent of the other lobbyists in town,” Endean said. “You always get a straight story from Dirk, even if you disagree with him.”