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The problem with blaming coal country for backing Republicans who will strip their health care

Coal miners operate a carbide-tipped shearer as it scrapes coal at a mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania.
Ty Wright | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Coal miners operate a carbide-tipped shearer as it scrapes coal at a mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania.

It's probably fair to say that liberal political writers don't spend a lot of time thinking about the details of retired coal miners' pensions. But in mid-December, the issue became a flashpoint when Markos Moulitsas, the editor and founder of Daily Kos, told his readers not to care what happened to 120,000 coal miners in Appalachia whose pensions and health care are about to expire without federal help.

"Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for," his headline blared.

The brief piece was deliberately provocative, and many others on the left condemned Moulitsas as exemplifying everything that's wrong with liberal condescension. At the New Republic, Sarah Jones said that liberals like Moulitsas "should try not having so much contempt for the poor." Common Dreams' Adam Johnson lamented that Moulitsas's "moralistic voter-shaming is neither useful nor compassionate."

But there's a more fundamental problem with Moulitsas's piece: It actually misstates the facts on the ground. It's true that coal country voters have empowered politicians who are broadly devoted to slashing the social safety net. But there is a specific ongoing legislative fight relating to a specific set of health and pensions benefits for retired miners, and most coal country elected officials from both parties — with the big exception of US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — are on the side of the miners.

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Donald Trump, meanwhile, hasn't taken any position on the legislation at all. He's campaigned on a pledge to revive coal mining by killing government regulations — a promise he'll struggle to live up to but that certainly makes some sense.

Earlier this month, Vox's Sarah Kliff interviewed an Obamacare beneficiary and Trump voter who was surprised to learn that the Republican government would try to take away her benefits. This is a different story. Coal country Republicans really are mostly standing up for miners' interests — and the miners are voting for politicians who vow to protect them.

The fight for the coal miners' pensions

Since the earliest days of the industrial revolution, coal miners have faced extraordinary risks of injury and health problems — most notably black lung disease. Clashes between workers and coal companies culminated in massive strikes after World War II, and in 1946 the federal government agreed to cover those key benefits.

For seven decades, then, the thousands of coal miners who faced fatal danger hundreds of feet underground counted on a pension and health care for their retirement. It was a battle they had already won.

But that once ironclad guarantee is now far from assured. The coal miners' pension funds have been careening toward insolvency, the savings that paid for their black lung operations and cancer treatments are on the cusp of running dry, and the US is now poised to renege on its pledge to protect them. At the heart of the crisis are plans that were once guaranteed through Patriot Coal, a big energy company that went bankrupt in 2012 in large part because of falling global demand for coal.

Right now, separate congressional committees have cleared two bills to have the federal government save the miners' health care and benefits. But the efforts have gone no further: McConnell has blocked attempts to solve the problem.

In mid-December, Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown and Joe Manchin threatened to shut down the government if Congress didn't pass their proposed Miners Protection Act. The bill would have covered the former miners through a fund originally established to pay states for reclaiming abandoned mines.

It failed. Instead, McConnell advanced a four-month temporary extension to their benefits through what's called a continuing resolution — a temporary stopgap measure that will set the stage for the exact same fight to be replayed in April. Enough Democratic senators agreed to go along with McConnell that Brown and Manchin's rebellion failed.

McConnell is not the only Republican opposed to Brown and Manchin's bill. Republican senators whose states benefit the most from the abandoned mine funds — in particular, Wyoming's Mike Enzi — have also been among the most stalwart opponents of that effort. Up to this point, the Moulitsas argument seems to make sense: These powerful Republicans want to end the benefits.

In an interview, a spokesperson for Enzi said that the senator objected to bailing out coal miners because it would put the government on the hook to rescue other failing pension plans. And this is the argument that other Republicans have used, citing a Heritage Foundation report on the issue: that rescuing the miners' pensions would create massive new expectations for federal support of private companies' busted benefits packages.

The catch is that this is not an argument most Republicans in coal country have tended to make.

Most coal country Republicans support the benefits package

A closer look at which Republicans are being elected shows the problem with Moulitsas's analysis. In fact, most Republicans in coal country are publicly supportive of the bill.

In September, for instance, the Miners Protection Act cleared the finance committee by an 18-to-8 vote. With the exception of Indiana Sen. Dan Coats — who is not running for reelection — the Republicans who opposed the committee form of the bill do not face political pressure from coal miners. They were Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Enzi (Wyoming), John Cornyn (Texas), John Thune (South Dakota), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Dean Heller (Nevada), and Tim Scott (South Carolina).

By contrast, some of the leading advocates of the fix for miners are Republicans. Among the leaders of the effort were West Virginia's Republican Congress members — Rep. Evan Jenkins, Rep. David McKinley, Rep. Alex Mooney, and Sen. Shelley Capito. In Kentucky, Republican Reps. Brett Guthrie, Ed Whitfield, and Andy Barr have all backed the efforts to save the pensions. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, doesn't think the bill goes far enough and should include non-union as well as union workers. (The last union mine in Kentucky closed in 2014.)

In other words, the officials being elected in coal country — both Democratic and Republican — are not the ones who have put the brakes on the coal miners' pensions.

"We have the problem of a few members of Congress who have different priorities," says Phil Smith, a spokesperson at the United Mine Workers of America. "But once you get them to understand it, most are supportive — especially those from coal country."

Coal miners are deeply invested in the fight to save their at-risk health benefits

Just as miners' health care benefits are about to go away, a new federal study has found that the number of Appalachian coal miners who have black lung turns out to be 10 times higher than had previously been thought.

"They describe it as drowning in their own body — this slow, horrible process where they have less and less air to breathe every day," says Wes Addington, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, of coal miners' black lung disease. "It's this smothering, breathlessness sensation that most often results in death."

I interviewed six retired coal miners, key organizations lobbying on their behalf, and several lawmakers involved in crafting the legislative act to help the miners. They all stressed that there is near-unanimous support among the coal miners for the effort to have the federal government pick up the tab for the expiring pensions.

Rev. Agie Bryant, 68, spent 35 years in a West Virginia coal mine. He suffers from a brain tumor, high blood pressure, and back problems so severe that they constrict his mobility. He fears his lungs are failing as well.

"You worked all of these years and thought you'd get something for the rest of your life. And then you're told you don't have it. It's absolutely devastating," says Bryant, who joined a rally of several thousand retired coal miners in Washington, DC, this September and has called congressional officials in pushing for the bill.

Without the pensions, most miners would be living off Social Security, which runs about $1,500 a month. The average prices of their prescription drugs come close to $1,800, says Smith, of UMWA.

"This is the most important thing to them. It's not just the money they rely on to get Christmas presents, fill the car with gas, help send their grandkids to college. It's the money they need to survive in the most literal sense," says Adam Wells, a staffer at the advocacy organization Appalachian Voices, in an interview. "It's their number one priority."

Why did coal country vote for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell?

There are two big exceptions to this story, ones that really might lead liberals to wonder why the coal miners would appear to vote to empower the politicians standing in the way of their benefits.

The reelection of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell in the heart of Appalachia is one. The UMWA endorsed Democratic Sen. Allison Grimes in her 2014 bid to unseat McConnell, but McConnell crushed her across the state. Then he spent the next two years holding up the coal miners' pension and health care recovery package, which some have viewed as retaliation for the UMWA's endorsement of Grimes.

And then there's Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton ran on a suite of proposed policies to invest heavily in Appalachia and transform its economy away from coal. And yet Appalachia swung heavily for Trump, giving him among his biggest landslides throughout the country. But McConnell and Trump ran in coal country primarily as opponents of President Obama's coal regulations, which they said were killing the coal companies that were the foundation of many Appalachian communities' economies. Neither ran on a platform of stripping the miners of their benefits and pensions.

"Why did people vote for McConnell? Because they believed in the 'war on coal' rhetoric in Kentucky and overcame the rest of their concerns about him based on that issue," Smith says.

Similarly, Trump excelled in Appalachia not because he vowed to end the miners' pensions — he didn't — but because he promised to restore the coal industry to its former glory and bring back coal jobs.

"Let me tell you: The miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they're going to start to work again," Trump said at one campaign stop. "You're going to be proud again to be miners."

That may be mostly campaign rhetoric; the biggest factor in coal's fall was the market, not the administration's new regulations. But it's not crazy to see the steps taken by Obama's Environmental Protection Agency as hurting or accelerating the decline of the coal industry. Voting for whoever was promising to stop that makes sense as rational economic self-interest.

You can say that voting for McConnell was a tactical mistake for the miners, or that it was naive for them to have believed in Trump's outlandish promises to bring coal jobs back. But it certainly doesn't support the conclusion that the white working class loves politicians who want to take away miners' benefits.

Just ask David McCloud, who spent 33 years as a coal miner in West Virginia. For six or sometimes seven days a week, McCloud worked in what's known as "low coal" — a thin seam just about 35 inches wide from top to bottom, hundreds of feet below the Earth.

"It was so narrow, you had to lay on your side the entire shift. If you drank anything, you'd have to pour it down the side of your mouth," says McCloud, 66, in a phone interview. "It just destroys your lungs. You work 20 years down there, and you look like you're 70 by the time you hit 40."

When McCloud wasn't down in the mine inhaling black dust and debris, he served as an associate minister at the Sophia Free Will Baptist Church. He spent much of his free time making hospital visits to parishioners who contracted black lung disease. They had been down the same mine shafts he had.

"But at least they had their pensions and health care. I might not," McCloud says. "If there's any light at the end of a coal mine, it's supposed to be that you will receive a pension and health care when you leave. That's why we did it in the first place."

Commentary by Jeff Stein, a writer at Vox.com.

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