It's rare when a liberal Democratic U.S. senator such as New York's Chuck Schumer and a conservative like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas can agree on any piece of major legislation, much less on national television. But this last week both agreed that legislation sponsored earlier this year by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was sound stuff. The law is designed to provide tax credits for first-time homebuyers. It has helped bring a pulse back into the housing market.
Some editorials have argued that the credits, set to end soon, are the same as the "Cash for Clunkers" program that helped lift the car industry, but cost taxpayers some $4 billion in the process.
The two programs are in no way the same. Such editorials that provide estimates of "the cost" to the government of tax credits demonstrate the fundamental difference between a common sense approach to healing ailing segments of our economy and a "throw-money-at-the-problem" approach that Americans are starting to grow weary of.
To understand why Isakson's proposal attracts bipartisan praise by such high-profile Senate colleagues, one must first know a bit about Isakson, whose low-key, level-headed style keeps him out of the national limelight.
While owning one of the more conservative voting records in the Senate, Isakson is almost universally liked in the upper chamber. Why? In essence, because he is not a show-off, he doesn't pick personal fights, he knows how to legislate, and he doesn't have any of the increasingly common idiosyncrasies that are making the Senate seem more like a menagerie than a distinguished legislative body.
And when it comes to real estate, Isakson knows of what he speaks. He started his career selling homes and later became president of one of the larger regional real estate companies of the 1990s. While the future senator was serving in the Georgia legislature, he managed to continue to be a hands-on and successful leader of his then-company. (The firm was purchased after Isakson went to the U.S. House and then the Senate).
As to the merits of Isakson's legislation, it should be noted that this real estate expert wanted the tax credit to apply not just to first-time homebuyers, but also to anyone who would purchase a home and live in it. Had Congress seen fit to pass the legislation as originally proposed, my guess is that the housing market would be in recovery and we would not be seeing consumer confidence and potential retail sales for this Christmas looking quite so tepid.
As to the difference between "Cash for Clunkers" and a tax credit for home purchases, it's really simple: The first is an example of the government taking your dollar from your pocket and determining who will receive that dollar back. The second — at least in the bill's original form — is letting taxpayers keep some extra dollars in their pockets, instead of having to send them to the government.
Cash for Clunkers was an example of redistribution of wealth, accompanied by all the bureaucratic red tape of trying to get the promised dollars back to the targeted recipients. Isakson's legislation was an example of keeping the monster called the federal government from confiscating funds and then sending them back in a dramatic power play. It's why tax credits and cuts really can turn bad times into better times, and quickly.
Isakson has tried to explain to his colleagues and the media that the greatest problem facing the housing market is not first-time buyers. Instead, it's those who own homes that are in the middle-value range, but simply are not selling. The economy could start to turn around dramatically if Congress would follow Isakson's advice and extend the amount of the credit, and make it available to all. But the Democratic leadership in the Senate watered down the legislation when it passed the first time.
If nothing else, Isakson proves that there remain leaders who can take their past skills, creatively propose logical legislation, work with both political parties and pass meaningful laws. While everyone searches for the next poster girl, blowhard, or grinning empty suit to lead the allegedly leaderless Republican Party, perhaps the party should instead look to someone like Johnny Isakson.
Then again, there's only one problem. The man is far too sane to want to be in the center ring and under the spotlight of what has become an American political circus.
Matt Towery is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2009 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.