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Borde-nough: Bunning vs. the Senate: What’s the score?

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Opinions


Political scorekeepers spent much of the last two weeks charging Hall of Fame pitcher and United States Senator Jim Bunning with a terrible error for delaying an important piece of legislation.  But in politics, as in baseball, there’s a lot of discretion involved in keeping score.

What Bunning threw at his colleagues was well outside the political box of the past decade.  Rules of Senate courtesy allow a member to delay a vote on legislation, theoretically in order to apprise himself of its content.  Bunning invoked those rules to delay passage of a bipartisan bill to provide over $10 billion in stopgap funding to continue key programs such as unemployment insurance, subsidies for extended health insurance coverage for unemployed people who former jobs had covered them, and road construction projects.

Congress will consider long-term funding for the programs soon.  Leaders assumed that no one would balk at a mere $10 billion in new IOU’s.  But Bunning did.  It was undoubtedly the most memorable balk of his career.  As a result, some federally funded highway workers were furloughed for two days, and the affected benefits programs were temporarily cut off.

On March 2, Bunning agreed with congressional leaders to end the delay.  President Barack Obama quickly signed the stopgap measure into law.  The missed benefits were paid retroactively, as everyone expected, and highway workers have two more days of work ahead of them in the future to complete their projects.

Bunning agreed with his colleagues that “this [stopgap bill] is essential and we should pass it.”  But he also insisted “that this bill be paid for,” meaning that money to offset the stopgap bill’s cost should be found elsewhere in the budget.  He offered amendments that would have paid both for it and for the long-term bill that is to follow.

To permit the stopgap bill to come to a vote, Congressional leaders agreed to allow one of Bunning’s amendments to come to a vote, too.  The amendment would have closed a $24 billion handout to paper companies that offered them alternative energy tax credits for burning “black liquor,” a by-product of paper production that they ordinarily burn anyway.  The amendment failed.

Bunning’s stand drew mostly criticism.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell conspicuously failed to defend Bunning’s actions.  Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin misrepresented Bunning’s position, claiming that Bunning, who desired a funded stopgap bill, actually “objected to extending unemployment insurance benefits and COBRA health insurance payments.”  White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs thought Bunning should feel “shame.”  Roger Alford’s widely distributed Associated Press article reflected most media commentators’ opinions, calling Bunning an “angry” man who “made others cringe” with his “ornery nature and ungovernable mouth.”

Persistent criticism of Bunning predated his recent actions.  It was sufficiently widespread to suggest that it had a kernel of truth in it.  Even the Republican National Committee has apparently lost faith in Bunning.  It is thought to have dried up his flow of campaign contributions last year, forcing his retirement this year at the end of his term.

But does Bunning’s objection to spending money make him “the crazy uncle in the Senate attic,” as Alford put it?  Is paying for new spending crazy?  Gibbs said that “Bunning… has frustrated a lot of people across the political spectrum.”  Was it not politicians’ ambition to remain popular without responsibly paying for popular programs that was actually (and only temporarily) frustrated?

Supporting the stopgap bill was easy; only Bunning took the difficult step of trying to pay for it.  He was ostracized for doing so.  Bunning’s detractors have suggested that he actions were not politically courageous because he’s retiring soon.  But judging Bunning’s 99 colleagues and the president by the same standard of courage produces 100 profiles in cowardice.  If only retiring legislators spend money responsibly, we should retire them more often.

Moreover, no one thought to call Bunning’s bluff by offering to pay for our domestic needs by ending our overseas interventions.  Open debate on spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is rarer today than at the end of George Bush’s presidency.

No one wants to be left holding the political hot potato of fiscal retrenchment.  But as Paddy Chayefsky concluded succinctly in his Academy Award-winning script, The Hospital, “someone has to be responsible.”

Elected officials may not fulfill their responsibilities now.  But when the big lie behind their votes–that of endless government borrowing power–is finally revealed, our leaders will have to accept responsibility in the less satisfactory form of blame.  Unfortunately, recalling dead leaders’ irresponsible decisions and letting historians slap them on their wrists cannot repair the damage they caused.  As it is with the Gulf of Tonkin, so it will be with the sea of debt.