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Feeling abandoned

Mine Program among Obama's proposed "savings"



Even President Barack Obama's staunchest, most enthusiastic supporters are having a tough time trying to find much to cheer about these days. Last week's State of the Union address didn't turn out to be the barnburner his base was looking for. Nor did it turn out to be a vision of a better future. It was just another speech by a young president who is very good at giving speeches, but considerably less good at devising policies—especially progressive policies—at the time we most need them. Instead, we are treated to a sorry continuation of Bush-era policies, wars and budget priorities as Washington goes whackier than ever very early in a crucial election year.

Last week should have been a pivotal moment in Obama's presidency. He should have looked back on a year filled with accomplishment as he ticked off his campaign promises and the reforms he has initiated to fulfill those promises. But alas, when one goes down the long list of Obama's campaign promises, there's simply no way to get around the stunning fact that he has not managed to keep them and, even more egregiously, has reversed himself on many.

The disaster began when the Democrats, led by Montana's Max Baucus, decided to abrogate their majority position and seek bipartisan cooperation on achieving Obama's pledge to reform health care. First they threw away the simple and thorough reform of single-payer, universal coverage, and then they threw away precious time courting dubious Republican support through the first half of the year. In return, they accomplished almost nothing except creating a new political movement, the wholly anti-Obama, anti-Democrat Tea Party. The highly energized "teabaggers," as they were called by some, scared them so badly with their actions at town meetings during Congress' August recess that many Democrats simply refused to hold meetings on the health issue. That, in turn, put Democrats even further behind the eight ball, a position from which they have yet to—and may never—recover. Toss in the loss of Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat and the concurrent shift of power away from a filibuster-proof majority and health care goes out the window as spooked Democrats run for cover.

But a president has many opportunities to use both policy formulation and the bully pulpit to his or her advantage, and Obama is no exception. So now, with health care reform laying crippled and bleeding on the side of the road, the president rolls out his budget, which could surely have brought some of those seminal campaign promises to fruition. Ah, if only that were the case.

Instead, Obama has produced a budget that sends military spending skyrocketing into the stratosphere, eclipsing even the outsized budgets of the warmongering Bush administration. If Congress goes along with it—and don't look to scared Democrats to resist—Obama will commit this nation to spending more than $2 billion on the military every day. Moreover, Obama has not included the full military funding in the budget bill, but will, like his infamous predecessor, seek an additional $33 billion in a separate appropriation for his massive infusion of troops into Afghanistan—a war that even his generals and ambassadors believe we are already losing and have no chance of winning.

While talking about how he and Congress must act like an American family in this time of uncertain economic futures, he has specifically removed both the military and homeland security funding from any reductions. Let's see, what American family would consider keeping 800 military bases worldwide in a time of tight finances? Who, in their right mind, would spend as much in one year on the military as it would take to bring full health care to every American over 10 years? Sadly, the answer is "no one"—at least no one in their right mind.

So, with two of the most enormous, least productive cost cutters off the table, what does our president decide to do? Well, he goes after domestic spending programs to find what he says are "savings."

Here in Montana, some of those "savings" include cutting funding for the Abandoned Mine Program—funding which is provided by a 35-cent per ton federal tax on coal production. Being major coal producers, both Montana and Wyoming are major contributors to the fund, but now Obama says we won't be seeing that money come back to us because he thinks our mine sites are "cleaned up." Nothing could be further from the truth—and it's puzzling where or how Obama came up with this conclusion.

More than a decade ago Montana categorized, characterized and prioritized the hundreds of abandoned mine sites scattered across the state. We know what the problems are, what the pollutants are, and which sites are most injurious to human health and the environment. Thanks to the prioritized list, we have slowly but surely been using Abandoned Mine funds to mitigate, to the best of our ability, the toxic legacies of the past.

If Abandoned Mine money is diverted to other uses, cash-strapped states will be forced to pass their polluted mine sites on to future generations, just as they were irresponsibly passed on to us. Some progress that is, especially when you consider that the total "savings" of $115 million this year would fund our military insanity for a whopping 1.3 hours.

In the meantime, in a budget shell game reminiscent of Bush, Obama is claiming money he doesn't have to reduce the record-high national debt. But counting on non-existent revenue from carbon cap-and-trade is a fool's game, since the measure is far more likely to join health care as political roadkill than pass Congress.

Instead of responsibly addressing the nation's budget woes, look to our whacky Congress to continue its pork-barrel spending in this election year, continue the losing wars, and continue the nation's slide into unimaginable debt while the president, sadly, continues his own slide away from the greatness that could have been his legacy.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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