2014's Final Act Of Republican Obstruction, And How The D.C. Press (Again) Looked Away

Just over .0001 percent.

In terms of annual spending by the federal government, which totaled $3.5 trillion in fiscal year 2014, the cost for implementing the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act each year would have accounted for around .0001 of the U.S. budget.  Over five years, the recently proposed veterans mental health bill would have cost $22 million, or $4.4 million each year.

Yet after passing the House on a simple voice vote, a truly remarkable accomplishment in today's historically gridlocked environment, the bill was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). Claiming it duplicates already existing services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, that the bill “throws money and it doesn't solve the real problem,” and its costs aren't offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, Coburn, a medical doctor himself, on Monday refused to allow the health care bill to be voted on.

And because the Senate session was quickly coming to a close, the bill's backers didn't have time to make a procedural end-run around Coburn. The senator retires this year and veterans' supporters say they'll start the process all over in the next Congress, and spend months trying to pass the bill that would increase the number of psychiatrists at VA hospitals, speed up access to mental health care to veterans, and expands peer support networks. (The Clay Hunt bill is named after a Marine veteran who committed suicide in 2011 after being diagnosed with PTSD.)

Veterans' advocates were stunned by the Republican's stalling maneuver.  “It's a shame that after two decades of service in Washington, Sen. Coburn will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Even for a Congress defined by its dysfunction and the hardened, radical obstructionism that has permeated the session, Coburn's decision, at the eleventh hour, to single-handedly block the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, represented a disturbing, and newsworthy low.

Keep in mind, in Coburn's home state of Oklahoma, “veterans and active-duty military personnel are killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians, despite increased efforts to address the problem,” according to a 2013 report in Oklahoma Watch.

Obviously, the blocked bill wasn't a major one in terms of size and scope. (As Wonkette noted, $22 million would have covered the cost of the Iraq War at its height for just three-and-half hours.) Still, here was an effort to address dire mental health concerns for American veterans and to deal specifically with the growing concern of veteran suicide, yet the bill wasn't even allowed to come up for a final vote?

Also note that Coburn, so concerned about budget restraints, supported the Iraq War ("Going to Iraq was exactly the right thing"), despite the fact the languishing effort drained more than $2 trillion from U.S. Treasury coffers. But today, Coburn's drawing the budgetary line in the sand over suicide prevention for veterans and $4.4 million-per year costs associated with the new program?

That, by any definition, represents news. Except many journalists didn't see it that way. Instead, they have averted their gaze from the obstructionist train wreck. And yes, we've seen this act before where the Beltway press produced a collective shrug of the shoulders when members of the Republican Party engaged in extraordinary bouts of interference.

It happened in December 2010, when Republicans, as part of a sweeping obstructionist policy, filibustered a bill to aid 9/11 first responders. As Media Matters noted at the time, the story was widely ignored by major news outlets, and mostly blacked out on television news. The role of actual journalism in that case was left to Comedy Central's Jon Stewart who turned a spotlight on the topic, called out Republican hypocrisy, interviewed first-responders, and delved into the details of the blocked legislation.

Now with Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, it's déjà vu all over again.

To date, there have been no mentions of Coburn and the blocked bill on CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC or PBS, according to a search of transcripts via Nexis. (Not all of Fox's programs are archived by Nexis.) The same blackout has occurred in the print pages of the nation's largest newspapers, according to Nexis: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Post, and Chicago Tribune.

What some news outlets have done in the last several days is toast Coburn at the time of his retirement, reminiscing about what a great guy he is while breezing by the fact he torpedoed aid for veterans battling depression, or ignoring it altogether. “Coburn, while often gruff in the halls of Congress, is loved by those who work for him,” National Journa reported. And on ABC's This Week, Laura Ingraham praised  Coburn's “truth telling on the budget,”  while Newt Gingrich held him up as “a model.”

Meanwhile, you could almost count on one hand the number of national outlets that did cover Coburn story. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow stood out by covering the details on the nights of December 12 and 15; ; her colleague Ed Schultz discussed the story on December 16. Huffington Post Live hosted a discussion this week, and the AP typed up an article. Interestingly, the conservative Washington Times provided the most coverage by any big-city newspaper, according to Nexis, publishing two detailed articles within the last seven days.

The near total news embargo stands in stark contrast to earlier this year when news organizations devoted so much time and energy to detailing problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA story was dubbed an official Obama "scandal," and one that revealed all kinds of unflattering things about the president (i.e. He's a "lousy manager"). Back in June, one television critic lauded CNN for its “wall-to-wall coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal.”

So last spring, when a veterans health story revolved around Obama and when it highlighted failures within his administration, the story was given “wall-to-wall” coverage. In December, when a veterans health story revolved around the GOP and when it highlighted the party's unprecedented obstructionist streak, the story was ignored by nearly every major news organization in the country.  

It's another disheartening example of Republicans adopting a radical reticence, and then paying no price for it in the press.

And guess what? That means there's no reason for the GOP to stop.