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Bill Straub: Saying whatever is necessary to assure their legends for a place in history; it’s all in the spin

Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell has dished out some doozies during his time in the District of Columbia and the pervasiveness of the coronavirus is providing the man with a great opportunity to add to the legend that is Moscow Mitch.

For instance, our boy from Louisville took to the air this week with a television campaign ad grabbing credit for passage of a $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, with a narrator turgidly proclaiming that “America is in crisis like never before. And in times of crisis, we look to leaders. Mitch McConnell led the passage of the biggest economic rescue package in history.”

The spot ends with, “One leader brought our country together in a unanimous, bipartisan vote – Mitch McConnell.”

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

Now, you may not have realized that McConnell achieved this historic feat all by his lonesome, perhaps because action on the huge recovery package was temporarily delayed as the Great Man sent fellow lawmakers home for a weekend before the vote so he could keep a date with Justice Brett Kavanaugh in Louisville.

Now that by itself is not such a huge deal – just emblematic of ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s priorities. But it remains astonishing that he is gloating about bringing home a monumental package that essentially was ripped from his grubby, little hands because he had made such a hash of it.

McConnell did produce stimulus package of a sort, a woeful document heavy on corporate bail-outs and short on funds for working folks that he, for some reason, thought Democrats would swallow whole, declaring on the Senate floor that it was “bipartisan’’ and a “compromise,” thus establishing that the Republican leader isn’t beyond mouthing malarkey.

One key provision in the Moscow Mitch package would have permitted the Department of the Treasury to dispense about $500 billion to corporate America like so much Halloween candy without gaining any commitment from those obtaining the governmental largess to preserve jobs and wages at a time of national distress.

Further, his proposal failed to exclude businesses owned by President Donald J. Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom, from the dialing for dollars that would result and that those receiving the bailouts could keep the information hidden for six months – likely divulging the information after the Nov. 3 election.

Democrats, understandably, didn’t view this as necessarily the best way to expend public funds, even in a time of turmoil, and they made their displeasure know by opposing a motion to bring the measure up for a vote. Their opposition led Mitch to squeal like a stuck pig, maintaining that “the notion that we have time to play games here with the American economy and the American people is utterly absurd.”

But play away Mitch did. He could have acknowledged what was obvious to everyone, that the $500 billion bailout was a potential slush fund ripe for abuse with little oversight, and then magnanimously agree to some changes. But that’s not ol’ Roo-‘n-Branch’s way. Instead he staged another doomed vote and threw up his hands in frustration.

What resulted was an agreement essentially cut between Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer, of New York, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has surprisingly emerged on the GOP side as a man willing to make a deal. It included an additional oversight provision regarding the $500 billion corporate bailout fund, placing that duty in the hands of an inspector general and a congressional panel.

In addition, the package invested an additional $150 billion to support state and local governments during this trying time, $130 billion for hospitals and more federal support for unemployment insurance.

McConnell was kept informed on the negotiations but he was, for the most part, dealt out as Mnuchin and Schumer haggled. But that didn’t keep him from boasting in the ad that he “brought our country together’’ while the truth is he had to be bailed out from his own abominable bailout.

All of this raises a new question. Mitch is a smart guy – if you have doubts, just ask him. He knew his package was going down in flames. But instead of dealing with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, he refused to budge and continued to call votes he knew would end in failure.

So why didn’t he just make a few necessary changes to bolster the oversight of the $500 billion fund?

It’s certainly open to speculation. And there are things to look out for.

For instance, say a shipping company based in New York, founded by a Chinese-American immigrant, that charters vessels to various big-name outfits, finds its revenue declining, like many companies, because of a coronavirus that’s shutting down world economies and limiting commerce.

It would seem naturally that such a disadvantaged firm would like to benefit from the federal government’s open checkbook. Nothing wrong with that – plenty of companies will be vying for the dough given the no-holds-barred nature of the distribution.

Now suppose said shipping company is called The Foremost Group and it is controlled by the Chao family, as it has been since its founding in 1964. And what if one of the founder’s daughters is Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, who happens to be married to a fellow named Addison Mitchell McConnell, the aforementioned GOP leader in the Senate?

Foremost could certainly apply. Under McConnell’s original bail-out bill there was so little oversight, and so few limitations on who can receive the funds – that’s why they called it a slush fund, after all – that the company and the Chao family with close ties to the Republican leader could easily profit.

McConnell has already done himself well financially thanks to his association with the Chao family, to wit, according to The New York Times: “Ms. Chao and Mr. McConnell married in 1993, but her campaign donations, along with those of her parents, sisters and brothers-in-law, began flowing years before the wedding. The first $10,000 came in June 1989. In the 30 years since, 13 members of the extended Chao family have given a total of more than $1 million to Mr. McConnell’s campaigns and to political action committees tied to him. In 2008, James Chao gave the couple a gift of as much as $25 million, vaulting Mr. McConnell into the ranks of the richest senators.”

It’s possible that Foremost is actually doing okay for itself and will forgo any opportunity to collect free money. But if it is interested, the rules initially proposed by McConnell wouldn’t produce any fingerprints establishing he’s doing anyone a favor – particularly in an election year.

Regardless, Trump is already tossing around hints that he intends to disregard the measure’s oversight provisions, asserting that lawmakers’ attempts to watch over the manner in which the dollars are doled out to giant corporations constitutes “impermissible congressional aggrandizement.” So McConnell may still get what he wanted – secrecy over who gets what.

Kentucky’s representatives have not exactly bathed themselves in glory as it regards addressing the coronavirus. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, delayed a vote on an earlier relief package so he could attempt to attach an amendment that, among other things, sought to terminate military actions in Afghanistan. He further became the first member of the Senate to contract the coronavirus, marching around the capitol for six days after initially taking the test instead of guaranteeing himself, thus exposing others.

Then there’s Rep. Thomas Massie, R-SomewhereorotherLewisCounty, who made an ass of himself by not only voting against the $2.2 trillion relief package, but attempting to delay the proceedings by calling for a formal vote while lawmakers – and everyone else in the country – sought to maintain a safe distance lest they contribute to the spread. Like Paul, Massie’s attempt went down in flames.

Remember that both Paul and Massie will ultimately devolve to nothing more than asterisks in the ledger books. It will be McConnell who’s performing the historic damage on the body politic. And now he’s trying to sell the idea that the federal government’s effort to combat the virus fell short because of the January impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Mitch told conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt that news about the bug “came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment.”

The statement crossed the line into the ridiculous, territory Mitch seems to be coming increasingly familiar with. As has been pointed out, Trump found time to visit his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, at least four times in January and February during the proceedings, managing a few rounds of golf during his downtime. And he was able to hold five campaign rallies around the country during that period without any problem or indications that his attention had been diverted.

Trump, as is obvious from his comments at the time, simply didn’t believe the problem was as great as predicted. He was wrong and now the nation is paying the price.

Pelosi said it best on CNN: “I think that’s an admission that perhaps the president and the majority leader cannot handle the job.’’

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