Dysfunction in the Capitol has a new face this week, or at least a different old face. Say hello to Jim Bunning, the Republican senator from Kentucky who is retiring this year. He's chosen to go out in a blaze of what he surely regards as glory.
Bunning, 78, is best known as a Hall of Fame pitcher who left baseball after 17 seasons with a Major League reputation for being competitive and cantankerous. Departing the Capitol later this year after 12 seasons, Bunning is likely to leave a similar legacy.
Just now, the man is engaged in a lonely crusade to become a fiscal hero, using tactics likely to attract national attention. That he can do so all by himself, with the rest of Congress nearly powerless to stop him, is a reality few in the Senate want to talk about. It is a reality most Americans find hard to believe, when they become aware of it.
Right now, Bunning is making millions of Americans aware of it for the first time.
After two terms as one of the chamber's most conservative voices, Bunning remains far from a household name. But that may be changing, as he has found a way to hold up an extension of unemployment payments for millions of jobless Americans. The same stream that Bunning is damming is also blocking a fee adjustment that doctors performing Medicare services had been counting on. Bunning is likely to hear from a few doctors on that score. And if the interruption lasts long enough to disrupt services, he will hear from patients as well.
Early in February, one of Bunning's Republican colleagues, Richard Shelby of Alabama, made himself a lot more famous overnight by placing a blanket hold on more than 60 nominations pending before the Senate. Plenty of senators have used their power to filibuster to place these holds on bills and nominees. But Shelby took it to a new level, attracted national notice and was soon the subject of a tete a tete between President Obama and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The upshot was that Shelby removed the holds without getting the appropriations goodies for Alabama he was holding out for.
Bunning, apparently, missed that message. Acting in the style of a lone wolf that characterized both his pitching and political careers, the Kentuckian went to the Senate floor on his own and blocked passage of an "extenders" package on Feb. 25. Because the Senate requires unanimous consent to proceed to a bill, Bunning's posture locked the package in limbo — even though it is acknowledged to have the support of an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both Senate and House.
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.
No argument there. Bunning has caught his colleagues in the kind of have-it-both-ways charade both parties have indulged in for decades.
But Bunning's gambit here is objectionable in two significant ways.
First, on the substance, his crusade reduces to a demand that others yield their priorities to his. His call for sacrifice would have more meaning if he were coming forward with one of his own. Instead, his prescription for lowering the deficit is to stop spending on programs he personally opposes (such as the economic stimulus program) to pay for others he supports.
What senator wouldn't want the power to impose his or her own trade-offs by fiat? And why wouldn't another senator who hates the deficit and believes in fair share taxation take to the floor, Bunning-style, hold up the jobless benefits and insist the Senate vote a tax increase on Wall Street (or another popular target) to pay for them?
The second objection is Bunning's presumption, shared by Shelby and many others, that he can throw the ultimate wrench into the works and literally walk away. Thinking the Senate would fold its tent once he had threatened to filibuster, Bunning was expecting to go home at the usual time. He was shocked when Democrats — led by Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin — confronted him, coming to the floor to recite statistics about unemployment in Kentucky. Bunning seethed and said he'd been made a the victim of an ambush.
He may have felt that way because he did not have a corresponding posse of Republicans on hand at first to help him hold the floor. This week, he may. But what Bunning has done poses a dilemma for McConnell, who has had his share of travails with his fellow Kentucky senator over the years (and played no small role in easing him toward the exit). Will the leader line up the GOP behind Bunning's right to derail a bipartisan bill? It won't make his own caucus happy to be seen in this light, just now but McConnell must also defend the minority's sacred right to filibuster.
Without that, 41 senators might not be able to go on pushing 59 senators around.