Senator Jim Bunning (R–KY, net worth $607,000*) continued his objection to a 30-day extension in federal unemployment benefits and highway funding reimbursements today, after successfully stopping the bill on a point of parliamentary procedure Thursday. Yesterday morning, two thousand federal transportation workers were furloughed without pay, thanks to Bunning’s insistence that a specific funding source be identified for the $10 billion bill and, presumably, the rest of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. On a more personal level, my father had his last day of work on Monday, having opted not to retire on Friday so that he would be eligible for COBRA health insurance through the end of March. That program, too, has been suspended, and now my father does not have health insurance because a Hall of Fame pitcher from Kentucky has taken it upon himself to end the welfare state. Bunning repeatedly affirmed his objection even as Democratic senators pointed out unemployment numbers in Kentucky, expressed their dismay at being kept up late, and generally employed the means by which an old man is made to feel shame. While Bunning was overheard swearing and complaining that he’d been “ambushed,” he held to his resolve, and the bill could not come to a vote. Which brings us to where we are now.
Cracks are appearing in the dam, however. Carl Hulse, who opened his initial coverage of Bunning’s obstruction with a complex metaphor referring to an episode of the original Star Trek, reports in the New York Times that Senator Susan Collins (R–ME, net worth $410,000) has become the first Republican to demand that the Senator from Kentucky withdraw his objection. Collins’s criticism suggests that Bunning is operating without the express blessing of the Republican Party, which only stands to suffer from another public display of parliamentary obstructionism (q.v. Richard Shelby.) Holding up administrative nominations on the sneak is one thing, but adopting a let-them-eat-cake attitude toward unemployment benefits—and doing so in the name of a balanced budget, thereby bringing to everyone’s attention a compelling argument against fiscal conservatism—looks spiteful. Where were you when Congress approved two unfunded, unbudgeted, indefinite land wars in Asia, Jim Bunning? Oh yeah—you were serving as the United States Senator from Kentucky.
You know the conventional wisdom in Washington is that this business is bad news for the GOP, because the White House abandoned its recent language of bipartisanship to criticize Bunning openly. “I don’t know how you negotiate with the irrational,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said this morning. “I don’t know how you prevent one person who decides they hold in the palm of their hand the livelihood of hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs.”* Gibbs isn’t exaggerating; in addition to the 1.2 million Americans who lost their unemployment benefits on Sunday, highway projects across the nation have been suspended because of the furlough of federal safety inspectors, which means that thousands of construction workers are out of jobs. If Bunning’s plan is to balance the budget by increasing unemployment and dramatically shrinking the construction and transportation segments of the economy, he has successfully completed Step One.
That isn’t his plan, of course. I was going to say that Senator Bunning’s plan is to make a spectacle of his fiscal conservatism at a moment when anti-deficit hysteria has reached a fever pitch, but that doesn’t make sense, since he’s announced that this will be his last term. It seems possible that Bunning actually believes he is doing the country a favor by abusing parliamentary procedure in order to single-handedly enact a pay-as-you-go amendment to the United States Constitution. If that’s the case, somebody should explain basic economics to him with a quickness; reducing federal spending in the midst of a recession virtually guarantees further economic stagnation, and history provides plenty of examples to prove it. Better yet, maybe it’s time we took a hard look at a Senate whose procedural system requires sixty votes to do a lot of things and only one vote to do nothing. I am an ardent supporter of the US Constitution, but I feel no such attachment to Robert’s Rules of Order. The vital principle of democracy is not that one ignorant old man should withhold food stamps and health insurance from 1.2 million Americans. Parliamentary procedure is a tool, and like any tool it can be blunted with overuse. It is one of two tools I can think of that, just now, are doing more harm than work.
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