Senator Jim Bunning singlehandedly blocked an extension of federal unemployment benefits for several days before allowing the rest of the Senate to vote Tuesday evening on the stop gap measure aimed at continuing financial assistance to Americans out of work. Bunning’s ham handed, tone deaf antics raised a firestorm of protest from Senate Democrats, and drew practically no public support from members of his own party. Senator Bunning’s statement at a news conference during the stand-off — “If we can’t find $10 billion to pay for something we all support, we will never pay for anything,” — was reiterated Thursday in a USA TODAY editorial by Bunning that sought to put a positive spin on his actions.
But Bunning’s effort to “stop the madness” by holding unemployment benefits and funding for certain federal highway improvement programs hostage, while easy to romanticize as a valiant effort by a concerned statesman, would have been as helpful to reducing the deficit as the proverbial “drop in the bucket.” As Senator Bunning himself noted in USA TODAY, “since the ‘Pay-Go’ rule was enacted [over a month ago], the national debt has gone up $244,992,297,448.11 (as of Wednesday, that is).”
In order to make any meaningful progress towards reducing the national debt, a comprehensive plan needs to be implemented. But a workable plan to reduce our annual deficits to a point where we can actually accomplish this will require shelving some of the political rhetoric both the Republican and Democratic parties have relied on as major tenets of their party platforms for decades. It will require an economy robust enough to generate increased tax and fee revenue streams. And it will require a population that is ready to accept higher taxes, less services, fewer entitlements, and a smaller military force.
The state of our economy is still very fragile, much too weak to keep inching back towards some sort of recovery without continued government assistance, whether it is in the form of lower interest rates, tax incentives for small businesses, or unemployment assistance for citizens across the country whose local businesses are not yet ready to expand. Surely Senator Bunning, a former professional baseball player, understands the importance of that indefinable yet very real difference momentum makes, whether you are a pitcher trying to get out of a slump or a nation trying to get out of a depression.
After ignoring the negative consequences of financing government functions through deficit spending and glorifying the positive aspects of it for so many decades, it is unrealistic and irresponsible for politicians or grassroots activists to suggest that a few tweaks to the current entitlement programs in our country’s budget, or wholesale deregulation of industry, or a private sector unfettered by taxes is the answer to reducing our national debt. Greece, crippled by its national debts, is enacting many of the drastic and unpopular measures outlined above because they have no other options. Let’s hope that Senator Bunning’s stand is seen less as a moment around which to rally and spout rhetoric, and more of a sobering reality check that it should be on where our country needs to be headed.