There is the curious case of Jim Bunning. He is the Hall of Fame pitcher turned conservative Republican senator, from Kentucky, who, on a Friday night in late February, singlehandedly blocked a temporary extension of unemployment benefits to those out of work and out of luck, and as the emergency legislation contained other funding, blocked a whole lot more. He said this is no time to spend money we don’t have, and Congress now has passed pay-go legislation – everything must have a funding mechanism and not just add to the national debt. He voted against that, repeatedly, but now he’s a stickler for following that rule nonetheless. No money, or more precisely no funding mechanism, no employment checks go out. And he won’t budge. He’s a one man filibuster, so to speak. He’ll use any procedural tactic allowed to stop the Senate from voting on this measure – in this case a personal “hold” that is a traditional Senate courtesy – to tide things over until the Senate and House can decide, formally, on how to deal with one in ten Americans out of work and no jobs available in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. But Bunning doesn’t care that the bill in question, authorizing a one month temporary extension of unemployment benefits, isn’t the final plan to deal with all the national woe. It’s the principle of the thing.
But principles are one thing and political calculations another. With so many American hurting and angry, when they’re not panicked, what seems heroic to Senator Bunning appalls his fellow Republicans. If there are no jobs to be had, go starve isn’t a message that’s likely to win the hearts and mind of voters. Sure, you can argue that those who still have their jobs, for now, might cheer that the whiners and freeloaders will get what they deserve – nothing – for a greater good. After all, good people, the real Americans, have fine jobs and support their families and pay taxes and do the right thing. But there are few workers in America who don’t have that odd feeling that they could be next, that the company they work for might go under, or that the company they work for will have to cut costs and will outsource the work to Lahore or Lisbon or Bangalore, wherever that is. Bunning’s principled fiscal conservatism is fine in the abstract, but it just doesn’t play well in Peoria. Major Republican players fanned out across the nation – to the talk shows, actually – to say they’d pass this stopgap legislation when they got back to work on Tuesday. But Bunning was giving every indication that he thinks his fellow Republicans are cowards and fools, and seems to be vowing they won’t get that by him. He’ll stop any vote.
His fellow Republicans never liked him much. They like him less now.
And they’re taking a hit, as McClatchy reports here:
The Department of Transportation furloughed nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday as the government began to feel the impact of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning’s one-man blockage of legislation that would keep a host of federal programs operating.
Bunning’s “hold” also affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.
Bunning wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the budget to not drive up the deficit.
Absent that, his objections to proceed with the legislation deny the Senate the “unanimous consent” that Senate rules require for going forward under expedited procedure. The Senate can overcome his objection if 60 of its 100 members vote to do so. So far they haven’t, and doing that would take at least four days under Senate rules.
He’s got his fellow Republicans by the short hairs. They cannot fix this fast. And the damage spread:
“As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.”
Federal projects shut down include more than $38 million in project funding for Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest and $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, DC area.
Of course Bunning’s home state of Kentucky has no projects affected by his standing up for what’s right. But nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers would lose federal jobless benefits this month if Congress doesn’t extend them, and there are 14,000 of those in Kentucky. But that’s according to the National Employment Law Project, a bunch of lefties. The Labor Department says they’re wrong – only a third will lose benefits in the first two weeks of the month. But it still looks bad for the Republicans. And it gets worse:
Letting the highway program lapse could mean an estimated 90,000 jobs lost. As many as two million families could lose access to local television because a copyright law expired overnight.
And if the National Employment Law Project is right, the effect of this is widespread – in California 201,274 people could lose help, and 105,016 in Florida, and 48,284 in Georgia. For Texas it’s 82,850 and Illinois 65,431. Cut those numbers by two thirds and it’s still nasty. But Bunning is holding firm – “If we can’t find $10 billion to pay for it, then we’re not going to pay for anything. The debt that we have arrived at, even the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, chairman Bernanke, said it’s unsustainable.”
And that’s that.
So the mainstream Republicans are scrambling:
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator – whose relationship with Bunning hasn’t always been warm – was unhappy that unemployment benefits were allowed to lapse.
“Senator McConnell supports extending unemployment benefits and is disappointed they have expired,” said Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman. “However, he hopes this issue is resolved quickly so that Kentuckians who are out of work will have their benefits restored soon.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., voiced similar sentiments.
“It’s hard to argue with a senator who wants to become fiscally responsible, and we should be paying for as much as possible. I respect the right of each senator to hold up major legislation,” Graham said. “However, when it comes to unemployment benefits, I don’t think it’s fair to punish people who’ve already lost their jobs. You have to be realistic sometimes. The money is running out.
“For people who have lost their jobs, unemployment benefits may be the only income they’ve got. … I’m willing to move forward to help them.”
But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the real problem is that the Senate doesn’t quite work anymore – “We can’t even get an emergency extension of health and unemployment benefits for those whose benefits expired at midnight. What are these guys good for?
And the rest of the McClatchy item covers the Democrat running for Bunning’s seat pledging to hold a protest rally if unemployment benefits aren’t restored and encouraging his constituents to call Bunning’s offices to complain. The Republican who wants Bunning’s seat when he retires soon is Rand Paul – the son of the strict no-government-is-the-best-government libertarian Ron Paul, and that’s Rand as in Ayn Rand. His Senate campaign planned to hold a supportive rally Tuesday afternoon in front of Bunning’s Lexington office. The Republicans really don’t need this now.
But it’s not just Bunning:
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, argued that unemployment benefits dissuade people from job-hunting “because people are being paid even though they’re not working.”
Unemployment insurance “doesn’t create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” Kyl said during debate over whether unemployment insurance and other benefits that expired amid GOP objections Sunday should be extended.
“I’m sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can’t argue that it’s a job enhancer. If anything, as I said, it’s a disincentive. And the same thing with the COBRA extension and the other extensions here,” said Kyl.
In theory that’s right. In practice it’s not that simple, when there are no jobs. And politically it’s poison. But how did it come to this, where nothing much of anything can now get done? Is it just people taking theory far too seriously?
Actually, there might be historical reasons, as Michael Lind explains in Why Republicans Want Gridlock. He argues that groups in decline, such as the white working class that controls the Republican Party, tend to focus on blocking change. They always have and they always will:
Having lost much of the white professional class to the Democrats (perhaps temporarily), the Republican Party is increasingly the party of the declining white working class. Non-Hispanic whites are shrinking as a percentage of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, the traditional skilled working class and lower middle class are shrinking as a proportion of the workforce, while the service sector proletariat and college-educated professionals increase their share.
To add insult to injury, the Democrats, instead of reaching out to white working-class voters, often have snobbishly dismissed them, as Obama did with his patronizing discussion of the “bitter” people.
In these circumstances, the American white working class quite naturally is experiencing “demographic panic.” Declining groups experiencing such anxieties generally focus on blocking adverse change, using the political institutions they still control. Apart from hanging on to their power as long as they can, they usually do not have programs for governing the country, something they do not expect to be able to do in the long run.
He says this is nothing new, really:
This was the strategy of the antebellum Southern planter class, beginning in the 1820s. As immigrants poured into the North, where native white farmers also had high birthrates, Southern whites were increasingly outnumbered. By threatening to secede in 1820 (the Missouri Compromise) and 1850 (the Compromise of 1850), Southern politicians forced the rest of the country to acquiesce to the rule that slave states and free states must be equal in number in the Senate, even though slave-state whites were a shrinking minority of the population. When the rise of the Republican Party convinced them that this delaying tactic was doomed, the Southerners tried to secede and form a smaller union they would forever control.
Or look north:
Demographic panic also afflicted old-stock British Protestants in Northern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their fear that they would be displaced socially and politically by European immigrants, particularly by hated Irish Catholic immigrants, inspired Protestant nativism as early as the 1840s.
The Protestant nativists, like the Southern planters, sought to booby-trap Congress to maintain their political power in spite of their dwindling relative numbers. From the founding onward, after every census the size of the U.S. House of Representatives was adjusted upward, in order to accommodate the growing population. However, after the 1920 census, rural Protestant representatives in Congress prevented an expansion of the House that would have increased the influence of European immigrants and their descendants in the big cities.
In 1929, the size of the House was capped at 435 – the number it reached after the 1910 census. Many democracies have lower houses of 600 to 800 members. The Anglo-Protestant nativists long ago lost their battle against Euro-Americans, but the small size of the U.S. House of Representatives is the legacy of their struggle to maintain their status and power.
And so it goes. But he points out those on the rise sooner or later become the declining minority:
The Anglo-American Protestants in the North and Midwest who crushed the Confederacy and dreamed of sending colonists to demographically and culturally Yankeeize the defeated South were themselves panicking half a century later over the prospect of becoming out-bred and outnumbered by Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans in New England itself.
Many of the children of the European immigrants whom the old-line WASPs feared and despised moved up and moved west to California, where, assimilated and affluent by the 1970s, they pulled the plug on the funding of public education, once black and brown children who did not look like their kids began to fill California classrooms.
In a hundred years perhaps the relatively declining descendants of today’s growing Latino constituency will unite with other groups to oppose the empowerment of 22nd century immigrants from other parts of the world.
It’s an endless cycle, and if you want to prevent the groups that are in relative decline “from trying to preserve their relative political power by using the veto points in US government to bring the machinery of a government to a grinding stop,” then you have to consider serious structural reforms. And he suggests reforming the Senate:
The radical yet perfectly constitutional solution to addressing the gridlock imposed by the small-population states is to subdivide increasingly under-represented large-population states like California, Texas, Florida and New York into smaller states, each with two senators. The Constitution permits a state to voluntarily subdivide itself as long as Congress approves.
But as that’s not likely, he suggests the obvious:
The immediate goal of Senate reform therefore should be the abolition of the filibuster, which exists only because of the Senate’s own rules and has no basis in our constitutional design. Small state populations would still have disproportionate influence even if all Senate legislation were passed by 51 percent majorities, but less than they do now, when the Republicans rule the Senate 41 to 59.
The House of Representatives is easier – expand it: “It is much easier to adjust the other house of Congress to make it more representative of the 21st century American majority.” The membership of the House needs to be expanded. It is time:
Creating more congressional districts, each with a much smaller number of voters, will make it easier for you to actually meet your representative. And smaller districts reduce the need for out-of-state special interest campaign money to buy media in elections. The clock that the WASP nativists stopped in the 1920s should be restarted. After every census, the size of the House should be expanded, until it reaches 600 or even 800 members.
Oh yeah, and get rid of Gerrymandering. And go to a single national primary:
Why should candidates who appeal to the disproportionately white voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have an advantage over those with appeal in states like California and Texas, where non-Hispanic whites are now a minority? The presidential primaries should be replaced by a single national primary. Would this help candidates who are known quantities with name recognition? Let’s hope so. No more Jimmy Carters.
And dump the Electoral College too – all votes count equally.
But none of this is likely to happen soon – “The demographically declining white constituencies who benefit from gridlock may prevent necessary reforms from being made by Congress for a while.”
But this is coming, and it must come:
…needed reforms will be undertaken – if necessary, by means of executive orders by future Caesarist presidents who circumvent the paralyzed Congress in order to get things done. And if the situation is desperate enough and the obstructionists in Congress are sufficiently despised, the new system of rule by presidential decree will be supported by public opinion and ratified by the federal judiciary, which generally follows public opinion.
So Bunning is speeding this along, by being sufficiently despised. It’s just that may not be what we want:
If this came to pass, it would mark the transition from democratic republicanism in the United States to plebiscitary presidentialism. We would still have free and fair elections every four years, but in between presidential elections the country would be governed by decrees drafted by powerful but little-known White House advisors, many of them not subject to Senate confirmation.
The conversion of the U.S. into a banana republic would be complete, as the president became el presidente and the House and Senate were reduced to honorary debating societies.
Wasn’t that George Bush’s idea?
Actually you can drop the sweep-of-history thing Lind offers and look at things more simply, as Kevin Drum does here:
The era between 1950 and 1980 was an essentially liberal one. That applies to the 60s and 70s pretty obviously, but even the 50s, underneath McCarthyism and the man in the gray flannel suit, was defined mainly by consolidation of the New Deal. Eisenhower wasn’t called a New Republican for nothing.
The succeeding 30 years, famously, were primarily conservative. And that makes a fundamental difference. Liberals, by nature, want to change things. They want to pass big stuff. Conservatives, by nature, want to conserve. They want to prevent change. Occasionally this takes the form of rolling back liberal programs (tax cuts, welfare reform), but rolling back progress is hard and rare. For the most part, conservatism takes the form of not undertaking big legislative changes. So it’s hardly any surprise that a conservative era is marked by lack of seminal congressional actions.
See? That’s simple:
What’s really noteworthy isn’t that 1980-2010 was a marked by a conservative approach to legislation, but that we should be at the start of a new liberal era right about now. Maybe not a repeat of the sixties, but still something. Times change, cultures change, and problems change – and conservatives can keep the lid on this bottle just so long before it’s ready to blow. By now, America ought to be ready for fundamental financial reform, healthcare reform, energy reform, and social reform.
But that’s not happening:
All of these things poll well in vague terms, but don’t really garner a lot of deep support. It’s this, even more than legislative maneuvering, that’s allowed Republicans to stop Democratic plans in their tracks. We liberals just haven’t made the case for change compellingly enough.
But it seems Jim Bunning stepped in, and stepped into it, to help things along. And it could be that change comes when just one man is sufficiently despised. Stranger things have happened.