Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bunning’s blockade

On Tuesday night, senators finally approved a bill extending unemployment benefits, highway funding, and other federal programs after Senator Jim Bunning dropped his days-long “hold” on the bill. The Senate approved the measure 78 to 19 (that means it was bipartisan).

During the Bunning “hold” on a bill that would have provided a short-term extension for federal funding programs that expired March 1, the federal government was forced to furlough workers (without pay), while hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans braced for an end to their unemployment checks and health insurance benefits, and doctors saw fees for treating Medicare patients decline by 21%.

Senator Jim Bunning's "unilateral decision to block an extension of federally funded unemployment benefits and other popular provisions…united Democrats and sent Republicans hiding from the political backlash," Politico reports. "Making matters worse for the GOP: Bunning is opposing the $10 billion aid package on the grounds that it isn't paid for – effectively forcing his Republican colleagues to join him or risk undercutting their own efforts to make Democrats' deficit spending a centerpiece of their 2010 campaign."

Bunning did not have much support, even in his own party. Most of the Republicans ran for the hills. Republican Senator Susan Collins asked Bunning to stop what he was doing. One Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, showed support for Bunning by arguing that unemployment benefits dissuade people from job hunting "because people are being paid even though they're not working." (Yeah, we know that you people who have lost your jobs are just taking a vacation on the government dole. Get off your fat, lazy b*tts and find a job!) Kyl makes this statement while the nation faces chronic unemployment levels unlike anything we have seen since The Great Depression.

This issue could not show the contrast between Democrats and Republicans any clearer. Democrats are working to put money in the pocket of the unemployed to help them feed their families while they are looking for jobs, while Republicans are trying to block that money and calling those who are relying on benefits lazy. The idea that those who have lost their jobs in this Wall Street/mortgage-scam recession are simply deadbeats, choosing to stay on unemployment rather than look for work, seems more appropriate to Scrooge's attitude.

The results of Kentucky Republican Senator Bunning’s action spread far beyond unemployment benefits.Kentucky could have been deeply affected by Congress' failure to extend the current transportation bill, which will halt nearly $1 billion in federal reimbursements to states each week, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. To be considered at a March 26 bid letting, five construction projects in Henry, Fleming and Lincoln counties must be advertised on the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's Web site by Friday, said Chuck Wolfe, a cabinet spokesman. The projects include two bridge replacements. Without federal authorization by the end of the week, “they would have to be withdrawn from the March letting,” Wolfe said.

How many other states would have had the exact same problem due to Bunning’s blockade?

There’s more:

Bunning's objection also resulted in the expiration Sunday of a provision that would have stopped a 21 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors. That drew fire from American Medical Association J. James Rohack, who said seniors are “collateral damage” to Bunning’s procedural games in the Senate. Physicians are outraged because the cut, combined with the continued instability in the system, will force them to make difficult practice changes including limiting the number of Medicare patients they can treat. AMA suggested that doctors sit on their bills for a couple of weeks until the issue is cleared up.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: “In addition to the dismay of these American workers, we must add the disruption of key safety programs. Programs like “Drunk Driving: over the limit, under arrest” campaign, our current work against distracted driving, and our work promoting child passenger safety and motorcycle safety. These are programs that work to change driving practices that kill 37,000 Americans every year.”

Yet another provision that expired Sunday because Congress did not act in a timely manner allowed satellite television transmissions to certain rural areas.

Also the loan program for small businesses (small businesses are vital to the U.S. economy – employing half of all American workers) were put on hold, an extension to the COBRA health insurance subsidy for people who have lost their jobs expired, and an extension to the National Flood Insurance Program authorization expired.

If Congress had not acted, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 4,300 Kentuckians and 8,000 New Yorkers would lose unemployment benefits in the coming days. By June, about 60,000 Kentuckians would lose on benefits prematurely, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project, which advocates a broad extension of benefits. Multiply that by 50 states. According to research from the National Employment Law Project, nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers were poised to lose jobless benefits, and with highway projects stopped, as many as 90,000 jobs could have been lost.

Sen. Bunning claims held up this emergency legislation because of the bill’s cost and the fact that it is not being paid for up front (an estimated $10 billion over the next 10 years), yet he voted YES on:

· the 2001 Bush Tax Cuts – Increases Deficit by $1.35 Trillion over 10 years
· the 2003 Bush Tax Cuts – Increases Deficit by $349.7 Billion over 10 years
· the GOP’s 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Bill – Increases Deficit by $395 Billion over 10 years

These three Republican bills alone added nearly $2 trillion to the deficit!

In this particular case, I have a tendency to agree with Cheney when he said, “Deficits don’t matter.” Actually, deficits do matter very much, but in a time of deep recession with very high unemployment, the government has to spend to keep the economy from going straight down the tubes. When the economy, including unemployment, improves, then you begin to bring down the deficit.

Why is all this so important since Bunning finally relented and the problem was solved?

Bunning is the perfect example on problems with Senate procedures, specifically overuse of the "hold" and the filibuster. With Bunning as their poster child, is this the moment when Senate Democrats finally start to move forward on reforming Senate procedures and perhaps start moving Congress forward again?

An enormous gift has been handed to Democrats on a silver platter. This one is so easy to paint as Democrats being on the side of the angels, fighting off Republican demons. The talking points just write themselves. Democrats should compare Bunning to the Clinton/Gingrich showdown every chance they get. They could say how indignant they were over the plight of the unemployed whose checks could have permanently stop because one Republican senator did not get his way. They should publicly ask Republicans if this is what they mean by "deficit reduction" and "fiscal responsibility" – holding over a million families' immediate financial future hostage in a senatorial snit. Democrats should decry "parliamentary tricks" that let one single senator anonymously hold up any legislation they feel like.

There is a very basic lesson here, one that Democrats just never seem to learn. The lesson is: Republicans have no shame about pushing Congressional rules to the limit and beyond. They also have no fear of any political consequences whatsoever, because Democrats never call them on it in any meaningful way. Republicans do not even think twice about doing this stuff, because Democrats seem fundamentally incapable of playing hardball – even when Republicans taunt Democrats and dare them to do so.

If handled correctly, this could be a watershed moment for Democrats – a way to show who really cares about the American public and who does not. Remember, Newt Gingrich went so far as to shut the entire federal government down, because he thought he would emerge from the fray with a political victory. He did not, and Clinton did. But the only reason that happened is because of public opinion. And public opinion is a pump that needs priming. The next few days will show whether Democrats are even capable of doing so, because the Republicans have just served up a golden opportunity on a silver platter. Opportunity is not just knocking; it has in fact broken down the Democrats' front door with a sledgehammer, and is now bashing them about the ears in a whirling frenzy of opportunity.

Here's the "kicker" which should prove irresistible: while speaking on the floor of the Senate, Bunning's response to Democrats upset with his actions was, "Tough sh*t!" If the Dems cannot make political hay out of that one, they simply should not be in the field of politics in the first place. "Bunning says tough 'sh*t' to the unemployed!" How hard is that? Get out there in front of the cameras and say so!

Okay, Dems, repeat after me: Republican obstructionism; Party of No.

Here are your talking points: Republicans do not care about you. Republicans do not care about the unemployed. Republicans do not care about families going bankrupt due to losing jobs or due to illness. Republicans are more interested in playing politics than doing what is right for this country. People's lives are at stake, but Republicans do not care.

Every chance they get over the next few days Democrats should be loudly denouncing Bunning's move. Bring it up no matter what the subject – you can always tie it into "Congressional gridlock" or "Republican obstructionism" or "this is why nothing gets done in Washington."

To put it an even more colorful way, the Republicans are collectively bent over in front of the Democrats with a giant "KICK ME!" sign painted on the metaphorical GOP backside, all the while screaming: "I dare you to do it!" at the tops of their lungs. All that is required is for Democrats to summon the energy to lift their collective foot a few feet off the floor and do so. Come on Dems, if you blow this one, you deserve to lose Congress next fall! Show some spunk!

On, no, please, don’t blow it…


See McClatchy news article, “Who really gets hurt when GOP's Bunning blocks this bill?”