The GOP obstructs, the Haitian people suffer

Errol Louis, writing for the New York Daily News, looks at how U. S. congressional politics is impacting aid to Haiti.

Everything you need to know about the cynical tactics of delay and obstruction being practiced by congressional Republicans is contained in a startling investigation by The Associated Press that hit the wires yesterday.

With a million Haitians still living on the streets of Port-au-Prince amid heaps of uncleared rubble nine months after a devastating earthquake, the AP reports that “not a cent of the $1.15 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding has arrived.”

Both houses of Congress approved the billion for rebuilding and creating temporary shelter for Haitians.

But a necessary followup vote on how to disburse the money has never taken place because a single lawmaker – Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (above) – placed a secret hold on the bill for “further study.”

AP reporters had to contact dozens of Senate offices to discover it was Coburn holding up the badly needed money, because antiquated rules allow any one senator to stymie key bills in total anonymity.

Coburn’s office did not respond to my inquiry, but The AP quoted his spokeswoman, Becky Bernhardt, saying, “[Coburn] is holding the bill because it includes an unnecessary senior Haiti coordinator when we already have one” – namely, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten.

The plan Coburn objected to would use $1 million a year for five years to pay for a U.S.-based staff of up to seven to coordinate the spending of rebuilding dollars with USAID and other agencies.

Now that Coburn has been outed, I urge all readers to contact his office at  (202) 224-5754 and tell him (or his chief of staff, Michael Schwartz) to quit blocking rebuilding funds for Haiti – or at least be honest enough to debate his objections publicly instead of hiding behind Senate rules.

But the larger problem remains: There is something very wrong with a system that allows a single pol to block a vote on such an important matter.

Of course, this is par for the course for the GOP since President Obama took over. Republicans have used party-line “no” votes in an attempt to obstruct health care reform, the economic recovery bill, a bank regulation effort and, most recently, a small-business tax cut package.

In addition to those high-profile matters, Republicans have used delay as a political weapon on scores of matters, crippling whole sections of government.

They’ve turned their backs on public service – trying to set up the Democrats for failure – rather than work with the party in power to deal with the terribly serious problems we face.

Take the judiciary. As Attorney General Eric Holder complained in a Washington Post Op-Ed this week, Obama has nominated 23 federal judges, 16 of whom were unanimously approved by bipartisan votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Normally, noncontroversial judges are simply approved by unanimous consent by the full Senate. But these candidates have been waiting for weeks on end – some more than six months – because GOP leaders have routinely filibustered nominations. That forces the Democratic majority to make a tough choice: Let the nominations languish, or allocate up to 30 hours of floor debate for each one – time during which other Senate votes cannot be held.

In today’s hyperpartisan Congress, “a determined minority is skillfully navigating the process to prevent an up-or-down vote on nominees,” Assistant Attorney General Christopher Schroeder recently told a conference of lawyers and judges.

The obstruction extends to nuclear disarmament: The landmark START treaty between the U.S. and Russia expired in December, and a successor treaty, negotiated in April, has yet to get a Senate vote.

Treaties must be approved by a two-thirds majority. But a handful of GOP senators deliberately slowed the process by submitting over 1,000 questions for staffers to answer – more than double the number of queries answered when the first START treaty was passed.

The delay means, for the first time in 15 years, U.S. inspectors can’t physically examine Russian missiles and silos to ensure that nukes are safe, secured and limited to agreed-upon numbers. Every day the political obstruction game continues is a day we are less safe from nuclear disaster.

The consequences in Haiti are nearly as dire.

“Life in Haiti has always been precarious, but living in a tent in the middle of hurricane season is courting death,” says Pooja Bhatia, an American writer who lives in Port-au-Prince.

It’s tempting to think that a change in the rules would prevent obstruction, but what we really need are leaders willing to put public service – and basic morality – above narrow politics.

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