Late last week, the word on retiring Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning and his one-man bust-up with the Democratic majority was grim. "Looks like some dour Republican has opened his yap and picked a fight he can't win."
By Sunday, a few details had penetrated the media firewall, and it looked like Bunning might have a valid point: Democrats were proposing to borrow ten billion dollars to save non-essential workers their jobs in the Transportation Department and to install satellite TV in rural areas, and this was bundled together with another extension of unemployment benefits. Bunning argued that there is no need to go deeper into debt to the Chinese government when hundreds of billions remain unspent in last year's "Stimulus" fund.
By Tuesday, word was out that colleagues were meeting with the senator, trying to get him to give up his cause. His issue had turned into a gift to the Democrats. The mainstream press was having a party, yucking it up, cracking wise on poor old Jim Bunning, portraying the matter as a Republican Party effort to deny unemployment benefits to millions who are out of work.
For Democrats, it couldn't get any better than this. Right in the middle of Congressman Charlie Rangel's corruption problems, Speaker Pelosi's gaffes, the Governor Paterson mess, and the terrorists' lawyers in the Justice Department, out of the blue came a cranky old Republican who, as a matter of principle, wanted to starve widows and orphans. Champagne corks were popping all over D.C.
But the problem for Democrats is that Bunning was able to hold out for five long days. One lone U.S. senator was able to stop the gravy-train long enough to attract attention and for the real message to leak out. In '06 and '08, Democrats campaigned specifically on what they call "Pay-Go," whereby the government must match spending with revenue. The matter was hatched back when Democrats were trying to gum up the War on Terror. Pay-Go was an attempt to tie George Bush's hands. You see, voting for military cuts while troops were engaged in combat would have looked bad to voters, but Pay-Go, once passed, was to be a device whereby Democrats could cut military funding indirectly. "Hey, it isn't us. We're just following the law..."
But government moves slowly, and just a couple of weeks ago, on February 10, the Pay-Go bill finally became law. We didn't hear much about a signing ceremony. George W. Bush is long gone, and Barack H. Obama now owns The War.
Nevertheless, when President Obama signed the bill, the message was supposed to be clear: From now on, there'll be no more spending unless we can pay for it, and that's that.
This is exactly what the Senator Jim Bunning fuss was all about. A little over two weeks after they outlawed unsecured spending, in their first piece of major financial legislation, the Democratic majority ignored half a trillion dollars still sitting in Stimulus funds and went ahead and borrowed other billions without indicating how they'd pay it back.
Of course, the suspicion is that the Stimulus money is not meant for things like unemployment or highway funding...not now, at least. Those funds are scheduled to be released later this summer and into the fall in order to give a sugar-boost to the economy just before the midterm elections. Barack Obama may be a Harvard-educated lawyer, but as a politician, he's pure Chicago. Stashing away a slush fund of public money to dole out at election time is exactly the kind of ethical juggling they do every day of the week back in the Windy City. The plan is to leave the economy in the tank until we need people to vote.
So now the Bunning crisis is over. How did the Republicans do? That's hard to tell just yet. This whole matter came out of the blue and clearly caught GOP leaders by surprise. The more important question is, did Republicans learn anything, and do they recognize what Senator Bunning may have done for them?
In his earlier career, Jim Bunning pitched his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Back in the 1960s, he was among the very best. He made seven All-Star appearances, pitched a perfect game in '64 -- one of only eighteen in official baseball history -- and built a lifetime ERA of 3.27. For seventeen seasons, Jim Bunning kept his team in the game. And that may be exactly what he did in his one-man duel with the Senate Democratic majority: He kept Republicans in the game.
In order to get Senator Bunning to sit down, Democrats made a couple of seemingly minor concessions. They don't plan to touch those leftover stimulus dollars just yet, but they allowed Bunning to attempt to pay for the bill by closing tax benefits to the paper industry. That measure only got 43 votes, but that's two more than the 41 Republicans...interesting. They also made the rehiring of nonessential federal employees and the unemployment benefits extension a temporary matter. It will have to be reauthorized in thirty days. That's even more interesting.
Those thirty days should give Senate Republicans time to prepare. What might happen when this thing comes up for renewal again in April -- right around income tax time -- if a fight were to erupt over government spending? What would happen if Democrats were forced to pay for jobless benefits and satellite TV and nonessential government employees from the Stimulus fund, which taxpayers are already paying for? And by the way, how much longer can we expect Democrat economic policy to keep people unemployed?
In baseball, when a team is on defense, the pitcher takes the mound. He stands alone in the center of the infield. He faces each of the opposing batters. One-on-one, it's him versus them. It takes a certain kind of guy to do that successfully. Last week, Senator Jim Bunning did what a great pitcher does: He gutted it up and kept his team in the game.
Now Republicans need to go on offense and score some runs.
Jed Skillman photographed hundreds of political television commercials, first for one party and then for the other, over a twenty-year span. He blogs at plumwoodroad.blogspot.com.