GOP Pork, Imperiled By McCain

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, March 10, 2008

The congressional Republican establishment, with its charade of pretending to crack down on budget earmarks while in fact preserving its addiction to pork, faces embarrassment this week when the Democratic-designed budget is brought to the Senate floor. The GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is an uncompromising pork buster with no use for the evasions by Republican addicts on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a first-term reform Republican from South Carolina, is to propose a one-year, no-loopholes moratorium on earmarks as a budget amendment. McCain has announced his support for the amendment and intends to co-sponsor it. DeMint wants to coordinate McCain's visits to the Senate floor from the campaign trail so the candidate can be there to speak and vote for the moratorium.

The irony could hardly be greater. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, an ardent earmarker, is smart enough politically to realize how unpopular the practice is with the Republican base. Consequently, McConnell combines anti-earmark rhetoric with evasive tactics designed to save pork. But McCain, surely not the presidential candidate McConnell wanted, is pledging that as president he will veto any bill containing earmarks. McConnell, meanwhile, is running for reelection in Kentucky by bragging about the pork he has brought the state.

McConnell has appointed a "task force" of five Republican senators to study earmarks, headed by the universally respected Richard Lugar of Indiana. But Lugar has never shown much interest in the subject. The dominant member is Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and the Senate's reigning king of pork. Cochran, who not long ago suggested McCain is unfit to be president, has secured $774 million in earmarks this year. Add the earmarks of three other members -- Lugar, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho -- and the task force itself accounts for more than $1.1 billion in pork.

The fifth member is Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, DeMint's partner in pork-fighting and a McCain supporter. How will Cochran and Coburn agree on earmarks? The answer is that they will not. "Everyone knows," a Senate reformer told me, "Cochran will never allow his right to earmark to be diminished." Since McConnell insists on "consensus" without a majority or minority report, all that will come out of the task force is a call for "transparency."

Lawyer-like, Republican leaders are demanding a definition of an earmark. They could get a good idea by looking at a sample of earmarks recently secured by task force members. Cochran: $475,000 for beaver management in Mississippi. Lugar: $240,000 to rehabilitate the Alhambra Theater in Evansville, Ind. Isakson: $300,000 for Old Fort Jackson in Savannah, Ga. Crapo: $250,000 for the Idaho sage grouse.

House Republican evasions are subtler. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a staunch defender of earmarking, has proposed a statutory "earmark reform commission," with a maximum life of six months, during which Republicans would refrain from earmarking. But that would allow them back at the pork barrel before the year ends.

House Republican Leader John Boehner, who, unlike McConnell, does not earmark and criticizes the practice, flinched from making a bold move as this year's session began. He could have led the House Republican Conference to endorse a yearlong moratorium and name reformer Jeff Flake of Arizona to a vacancy on the Appropriations Committee.

Instead, the Republicans picked Jo Bonner of Alabama, who spent 18 years as a House staffer before his election in 2002. Bonner has voted against Flake in 49 out of 50 attempts to kill earmarks. He has promised his Mobile area constituents that they would get "fair value" for their tax dollar -- the justification for bringing home the bacon from Washington. Incredibly, Boehner hailed Bonner's selection as a step toward earmark reform.

The GOP may be falling behind the Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moving toward a moratorium. In the Senate, courageous freshman Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri supports the DeMint amendment. She could be joined by her choice for president, Barack Obama. These developments encouraged Flake to say: "If Democrats actually move ahead with an earmark moratorium before Republicans, the Democrats will get the credit for eliminating earmarks, and, frankly, they'll deserve it."

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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