The Bubble and Squeak Congress

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The spending bills are coming fast and furious in Washington, with the summer deadlines looming and Democrats and Republicans looking to tie a pretty little bow on 111th United States Congress by appeasing valuable constituency groups.

The spending bills moving through the House and Senate are an American version of Bubble and Squeak: a mess of refried leftovers from months of political wrangling. We want armor for our troops, checks for our jobless, money for our schools, funding for new nuclear reactors, and more troops on the border. But with only weeks remaining until summer recess, everybody's ideas are trying to leave the train platform at the same time.

Senators are scrambling to put finishing touches on the war funding bill. Max Baucus is pushing for a weighty tax cut and stimulus bill that we would partially pay for by eliminating a tax loophole that benefits hedge fund managers known as carried interest. In the House, politicians are trying to find space on the mothership that is Obama's war supplement, by proposing add-ons like disaster relief, foreign aid, border patrols, and $23 billion rescue plan for public schools. The district ragweed known as the "doc fix," which keeps doctors from taking up to a 20 percent pay cut under Medicare, is back in play, as well.

Times like these tell you where an administration sees its priorities and its opportunities. The administration is not standing firmly behind the public school rescue plan, despite pleas from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Instead the White House announced it wants to send thousands of troops to the Mexican border. The calculus here is clear, even if it's distressing. The White House is afraid of big numbers and is looking for ways to show moderate Americans that it "gets" them.

It's too bad. The enemies are at the gates of our fragile recovery. Europe's debt crisis is making the Dow shiver. Summer demand for new homes could be dry. Broad unemployment is still at 16 percent. Despite months of growth, we're still on the cusp of deflation, and income growth is practically non-existent. And yet the administration is still spooked by bold spending to juice the economy.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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