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Sen. Jim Bunning puts brakes on Transportation workers

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; B03

When I was a youngster in Detroit, I marveled at the prowess of Jim Bunning.

The lanky right-hander was an all-star pitcher with the Detroit Tigers. Opponents had to watch out for his good curve and his slippery fastball.

Those same characteristics still apply, but now Bunning pitches for the Republicans in the Senate, representing his home state of Kentucky. This time he threw a curveball that leaves federal employees confused.

Now a deficit hawk, Bunning blocked passage of legislation last week that would have funded tax credits for health coverage for those who lost their jobs, as well as unemployment benefits and federal highway and transportation projects.

His action came like a high, inside fastball at the heads of 2,000 Department of Transportation workers. They were furloughed Monday because Bunning's deed halted their pay. Ironically, if the furloughs continue, those employees could need the unemployment benefits and health coverage that also are being held up.

"My husband is not working today," Pamela Nunley said. "He is a statistician for DOT. We cannot pay our bills without his paycheck. Why does Congress allow this to happen? Do they never think of the American people?"

Bunning says he is thinking of the American people by fighting the deficit.

"When 100 senators are for a bill and we can't find $10 billion to pay for it, there's something the matter, seriously the matter, with this body," he said to an empty chamber Friday. "There are going to be other bills brought to this floor that are not going to be paid for, and I'm going to object every time they do it. . . . I have got too many young grandchildren that want America to be the same America that I grew up in. And I'm worried to death that that's not going to be the case."

While Bunning frets over the future, Mike Johnsen worries about today. The U.S. government he works for is not on the case protecting the public, because Bunning's legislative maneuver stops civil servants from doing their work. Johnsen tried to tell that to Bunning's office, but a staff member there apparently didn't want to hear it.

"I've tried to contact Sen. Bunning's office several times, and I finally found an office in Lexington," said Johnsen, who, like other employees, makes it clear that he is not speaking for his agency. "When I got through, I informed the staffer I wanted to leave a message to the senator about what I do with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, so he has an idea of the impact of his actions. His staffer hung up on me numerous times before I could explain. . . . I never was able to explain the important work I do in preventing large truck and bus fatalities on our nation's roadways."

Time magazine called Bunning one of the nation's five worst senators in 2006. That's a designation many Transportation staffers probably agree with.

On Monday, Mike Reynard, the senator's spokesman, said that Bunning wants the legislation to pass but that he's not going to give in until the money is found to pay for it.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications, said Bunning is "an independent cuss" who is strong on principles. "This is just a cranky old guy, getting older and crankier."

Let it be noted that even "old cranks" can have good ideas and that everyone agrees with Bunning that the government should pay for its programs. But whatever problems he has with the way the Senate does business, and it's clear there are many, the federal worker shouldn't be the fall guy.

"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."

LaHood's staff did a good job of getting the word out to employees, said Antonyio Johnson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that covers DOT workers. But the news was a surprise.

"No one saw it coming," Johnson said. "We are all caught off guard."

He hopes his members will be back at work by Wednesday or Thursday. But who can know what the Senate will do next?

"It's unfortunate that something like this happens, that federal employees are put in this situation of unnecessary stress because of political wrangling. We're here to do a job for the American people."

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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