Jim Bunning's quixotic stand on spending

Thursday, March 4, 2010

REGULARLY intemperate -- most recently in his hyperbolic attacks on the Federal Reserve -- Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) is on his way to retirement, largely because his Republican colleagues have concluded that the 78-year-old former major league pitcher is a political liability. Mr. Bunning is not going quietly: His latest move was to put a five-day "hold" on a $10 billion bill to pay for extended unemployment benefits and other popular programs. Democrats, who control the Senate, had insisted the measure should be treated as an "emergency" bill exempt from pay-as-you-go rules. Mr. Bunning said "no." This was spectacularly bad politics -- Mr. Bunning is not the spokesman his Republican colleagues prefer, to put it mildly -- and so he ultimately relented.

But was it bad policy? That's a closer call. The point Mr. Bunning was trying to make was a reasonable one: At some point, Congress has to stop borrowing and spending, even for worthy purposes. He's correct about this in the long run, though there's a fair debate as to whether the deficit is a greater threat to the economy now than, say, unemployment. What is clear is that a "pay-for" Mr. Bunning proposed -- cutting a tax credit for makers of a wood byproduct called "black liquor" -- is absolutely meritorious and should be adopted whatever else Congress does.

This particular piece of corporate welfare showers paper companies with about $2.5 billion per year. Supposedly that encourages them to generate power with "black liquor," an "alternative fuel." But they recycled it for years before the tax break and would probably do so if it were dropped. President Obama himself has proposed eliminating the black-liquor credit in each of his two budgets.

However, Mr. Obama and other Democrats have their own ideas about how to use the savings. At the moment, they're earmarked for health care. Mr. Obama's recent proposal would spend $950 billion over 10 years, or about $79 billion more than the Senate bill. He covers about a third of that difference by cutting the black-liquor credit, a "pay-for" adopted from the House bill. If Mr. Bunning had succeeded, that would not have been possible.

But, after Mr. Bunning backed down in return for an up-or-down vote on cutting the tax credit, Democrats defeated him 53 to 43. Actually, the vote was to uphold a motion by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) ruling Mr. Bunning's amendment out of order, so technically no one had to go on record in defense of the indefensible tax break. Pretty clever. Meanwhile, it's far from certain that Mr. Obama's health-care outline will actually become law, whether or not it's paid for in part by ending the black-liquor credit.

So Mr. Bunning's quixotic effort did illustrate Washington's dysfunction. But it's not news that the Senate's ancient rules permit a single senator to tie up the entire upper chamber. Partisan grandstanding is also old hat. The more pertinent lesson is this: Even in a rare instance where Democrats and Republicans did agree to cut blatant waste, they were still bitterly divided over how to spend the savings -- with the result that the waste may never get eliminated in the first place.

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