3.03.2010

Thoughts About "Lone Wolf" Bunning

NPR asked if we should thank the Senator from Kentucky for his "knuckleball" to the U.S. Senate.  I think there's a qualified case to be made that we should - beyond the likely Democratic thank you card for providing a convenient pinata.

For one, Bunning's refusal to permit the extension of various benefits and reimbursements by unanimous consent pointed out the hypocrisy of the Senate's earlier vote requiring the federal government to "pay as it goes."   His obstinance showed that the Senate still does not have the willpower to make good on the simple concept - and actually keep federal spending in line with the ability to spend:

Bunning admits this is so. But he says he is holding the Senate's feet to the fire because the cost of this bill, approximately $10 billion, is not offset by cuts to other programs. If the Senate is going to pride itself on passing "pay-as-you-go" legislation one day and then approve unfunded spending the next, the hypocrisy needs to be exposed.

The Senate's failure to cleave very clearly and consistently to fiscal responsibility in the present environment shows it is out of touch.  In the face of a sort of tragedy of the commons where a significant majority of Senators voted for the extensions without a sufficient financial basis, it was actually refreshing to see a lone wolf character - Bunning, freed as a lame duck by no need to run again - stand athwart the madness and say "No."

Second, the episode illuminated, once again, that Senate rules permitting one Senator to effectively hold up a vote.  The rule requiring unanimous consent may, I admit, be outdated in a body that is increasingly not as genteel and collegial as it ostensibly was in the past.  But the body has the ability to determine its own rules.  And it wasn't truly "held hostage" by Bunning more than temporarily.  And despite Harry Reid's assertion - "If there were ever an emergency, this is it" - this was not an actual national security emergency.  If you want a true abuse of the rule, look at Senator Richard Shelby's holds not long ago - fortunately, he didn't get what he wants.

Third, contrary to what many observers seemed to think, the Senate did exactly what it is supposed to do in this situation.  It acted just as it was meant to act - as an anchor keeping the legislature from making drastic, purely emotional, irresponsible moves.  Few news sources covering the Bunning affair noted that his hold could be overcome by the Senate within a few days - he couldn't permanently hold things up unless a certain number of Senators agreed with him.  It was unanimous consent - if someone objects, you simply call a vote.  In this particular instance, some of the extensions were highly time sensitive, and it meant in this instance that he was able to have a more significant impact than otherwise.

Unemployment benefit extensions, threatened furloughs, and reduced medicare reimbursement rates  are flammable issues these days.  This was clearly not a good PR move for the Republican Party.  But I think Jim Bunning was unfairly vilified for his move - especially by a news media that seemingly didn't report on another thing Bunning pointed out: Harry Reid's non-standard strategy reveals Reid himself was interested more in making hay than "helping out Americans." 

The billions in payouts at the root of the controversy show us one final thing: the deep-seated assumption that Americans are unquestionably entitled to all of the government payouts and measures in question demonstrate just how overly dependent we have become upon the federal government.