Government by tantrum is never a pretty sight.
This week, we've had bicoastal examples of just how unlovely it can be. In Washington, Sen. Jim Bunning abused traditional senatorial prerogatives, and in Los Angeles, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich flouted the bail system in, of all things, a billboard case.
On Tuesday, Bunning -- the soon-to-retire junior Republican senator from Kentucky -- used the threat of a one-man filibuster to block for a month the emergency extension of $10 billion in federal aid to people hard-hit by the economic crisis. The measure is one of those rare pieces of legislation that has bipartisan support, and the latest motion for passage was brought by one of Bunning's fellow Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
The Kentucky senator refused to allow the bill to proceed until funds were budgeted to pay for it. His sudden emergence as a deficit hawk was mystifying to his colleagues, because he previously had no trouble voting for unfunded tax cuts and military appropriations.
Bunning, 78, is probably best known as the major league pitcher who won a place in the Hall of Fame throwing breaking balls for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies. It's doubtful, though, that he ever tossed a curve quite like the one he used to freeze the Senate. If the damage stopped there, Bunning's stubborn insistence on having his own way for his own obscure reasons simply would be an inconvenient parliamentary oddity. In this instance, though, real people already are suffering real injuries.
The bill this willful goofball was blocking contains far more than aid to jobless workers whose regular unemployment and health benefits have run out. More than 100,000 of them already are going without assistance because of Bunning's solo jihad, and as many as 300,000 more unemployed Americans were about to join them. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has been forced to furlough tens of thousands of workers employed on 41 different federally funded transit projects. On Sunday, failure to pass the measure triggered a 21% cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors. Emergency loans to small businesses have been curtailed, and more than 1 million isolated rural households who rely on a federal program that provides them access to satellite television were about to lose their signal.
What seems lost on the famously ill-tempered Bunning is the difference between standing on principle and standing on pique.
That brings us to L.A.'s Trutanich, who has anger-management issues of his own. There is no doubt that the spread of digital billboards and supergraphics is a civic blight, or that many of the building owners who profit from them are flouting the city's permitting process. (I personally loathe the things and, in other columns, have argued that the city ought to ban them wholesale, while allowing reasonable signage for businesses on the premises.)
On Friday, Trutanich had Pacific Palisades businessman Kayvan Setareh arrested for ignoring warnings from the city attorney's office and allowing an eight-story supergraphic to be draped on a building he owns at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Setareh reportedly has a history of ignoring city regulations and neighborhood complaints about graphic ads on several other buildings he owns in Hollywood.
The problem is that even scofflaws are entitled to due process. Trutanich found a feeble-willed judge who was willing to set the landlord's initial bail at $1 million. By having him arrested on a Friday, the city attorney essentially gave Setareh a choice: Pay the nonrecoverable $100,000 a bail bondsman would have charged to write the bond, or spend the weekend in jail, because it takes three to four days to secure release by putting up your own real property as surety. (The bail was subsequently reduced to $100,000.)
Putting aside the question of whether there's any ethical proportionality in demanding $1 million bail for three misdemeanor charges, are we really supposed to believe that Setareh -- with all his holdings in Los Angeles -- is a flight risk? Bail is not a punishment; it simply is a way of enforcing a defendant's promise to appear in court. In this case, though, Trutanich essentially imposed a choice between jail time or a $100,000 fine on a defendant who'd never had a minute -- let alone a day -- in court and is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
The Bunning and Trutanich cases are good reminders that, while elected office can be made a bully pulpit, we all suffer when it's transformed into a pulpit for bullies.