Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Jim Bunning strikes out

The country thinks of Washington as a shipwreck, where the machinery just doesn’t work anymore. An old senator from Kentucky has giving us a fine primer on why that is so.

Jim Bunning, who pitched superbly for 17 years for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers but was a long-running disaster as a public servant, single-handedly halted unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of men and women, stopped payments to doctors for treating Medicare patients, shut down road-building projects, ended COBRA coverage, blocked flood insurance and small business loans and held up distant network television for satellite viewers. Arkansas reaped some of his whirlwind.

Bunning said he was for all those good things, but he wanted to make a point and he didn’t care how much suffering it caused.

Authorization for all those programs ran out at midnight Sunday and Bunning has used a rule of senatorial courtesy to prevent the Senate from voting to continue the programs. The quaint rules of the Senate require the unanimous consent of senators to take up emergency measures, which allows someone to put a temporary hold on legislation until he can get up to snuff on it. It is one of those rules that was never intended to allow one or even a few senators to thwart the majority’s will but rather to slow down a stampede. The filibuster rule is another. Now they’re used to prevent the majority party, whichever it happens to be, from doing anything.

Bunning announced last month that he would not let any of the programs continue until the Senate, House of Representatives and the president raised $10 billion to pay for them, either by taxes or slashing other programs. He wouldn’t want them to cut defense spending or anything that affected his state.

Bunning has become as unpopular in his own state as he is in Washington with members of his own party, who view him as a buffoon and a handicap. He has been at war with the party and his own Kentucky colleague, the minority leader Mitch McConnell, and he was driven last fall to announce that he would not run again this year. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had recruited people to run against him.

Bunning decided to take a defiant stand on what he thought was the most popular ground in the country: deficit spending. He said the Senate simply had to stop deficit spending and that he would block the most popular programs until the government funded them directly.

He counted on the country and the good people of Kentucky having short memories. The mammoth deficits that he correctly condemned were much of his own making. The country had run four consecutive years of surpluses for the first time in 70 years when in 2001, Bunning began to vote for all the initiatives that ended balanced budgets and created the worst string of deficits in history. He voted to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and not to pay for them, preferring instead to finance them by borrowing. He voted for four rounds of tax cuts for the well-to-do and corporations. It took five years for the government’s revenues to return to 2000 levels, but meantime, Bunning and his colleagues ramped up spending until the deficit soared past $1 trillion for a single year. He voted in 2003 to vastly expand Medicare but to meet the hundreds of billions in new invoices by just putting it all on the tab. President Bush said it would be all right, so that was good enough for Jim Bunning. Bush had once owned the Texas Rangers, so he had to know what he was doing.

Yes, Bunning bucked his president and the leaders of his party and voted against the bailout of financial institutions in 2008, correctly sensing that most people would be outraged that the government was helping the very people who had brought on the second worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. But he picked February 2010 to become a deficit hawk.

As we were going to press yesterday evening, Bunning capitulated. His own party in virtually unanimous rebellion — Senator Susan Collins of Maine said people in her state were baffled that Congress could permit such foolishness — he said he would allow a vote.

President Clinton confided to his historian after leaving office that the old Philly righty was the creepiest person in Congress.

Clinton will get no argument from most Republicans, but here’s the thing. In Washington, D. C., for a few weeks, Jim Bunning was running the show.