Breaking the earmark addiction

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, March 23, 2010;

With Sunday night's vote ramming through health-care legislation opposed by most Americans, the prospect of a Republican Congress is increasingly realistic. But have Republicans on Capitol Hill spent enough time in the political wilderness to deserve a return to power? Are they ready to give up the free-spending ways that cost them control of Congress and show voters that they can be trusted with their tax dollars? A vote last week suggests that, for the Senate at least, the answer is "no."

To win control of Congress, the Republicans will need to make the backroom deals Democrats cut to buy health-care votes a centerpiece of their fall campaign. But it will be hard for the GOP to run against the "Louisiana Purchase," "Gator Aid" and "Cornhusker Kickback" if they do not pledge to forgo backroom deals of their own.

House Republican leaders understand this. That is why this month the GOP conference voted to adopt a voluntary, unilateral ban on all earmarks for the remainder of the 111th Congress. The resolution declares that "no member shall request a congressional earmark, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit." Securing such a pledge was not easy. During their time in power, Republicans became addicted to earmarks. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, in 1994, the year before the GOP took control, there were just 1,318 earmarks totaling $7.8 billion. By 2005, the last year of Republican rule, the number had grown to 13,997 earmarks totaling $27.3 billion. It was a Republican Congress that gave us the "Bridge to Nowhere" and the Duke Cunningham "bribes for earmarks" scandal -- symbols of profligacy and corruption that led taxpayers to throw Republicans out in 2006.

A grass-roots movement for fiscal discipline is driving independents to the GOP, and House Republicans needed to show that they had learned their lesson on spending -- so they went cold turkey on earmarks.

Unfortunately, that lesson does not appear to have sunk in on the other side of Capitol Hill. Last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) offered a bipartisan amendment on the Senate floor that would have banned all earmarks for the rest of the current Congress. He got just 25 Republican votes. Indeed, two GOP senators -- Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Jim Inhofe (Okla.) -- voted for the same amendment in 2008 when they were up for reelection, but switched sides this time around. In all, 15 Republicans voted to preserve earmarks -- and not surprisingly nine came from the appropriations committee.

DeMint lost on the Senate floor, but he has a card up his sleeve. He can now move to have the Senate Republican conference adopt the same earmark ban adopted by the House Republican Conference as a matter of GOP policy. With 25 Republicans on record supporting an earmark moratorium, he presumably has the votes. The only way an earmark ban could fail would be if Republican senators who voted publicly to ban earmarks were to vote to protect them behind closed doors when the GOP conference meets. That would be an embarrassment for the party to say the least.

DeMint would earn the ire some of his colleagues for forcing such a vote, but he should go forward nonetheless. Earmarking is a tough habit to break, and the time has come for an intervention.

Like other addicts, those hooked on earmarks make all sorts of excuses to justify their self-destructive behavior. They protest that earmarks don't amount to much money -- just $19.6 billion last year, compared with the trillions in other spending Congress approves each year. But earmarks cost much more than their face value; they grease the way for those other massive spending bills. (Obamacare would have died in the Senate on Christmas Day without special deals.)

Others protest that they hate earmarks but need them to win reelection. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), one of the House leaders on earmark reform, says this is not so. He told me he requested earmarks as a freshman but then gave up the habit. "At first, in some corners of my district I was a little unpopular, but as time went by, frankly, it has made me more popular," he said. "I tell people I don't think you sent me to Washington to bring home the bacon from somebody else's district. I think you sent me to Washington to make sure nobody raids your smokehouse."

If Americans give Republicans their reins of power in November, it will not be to bring home the bacon -- it will be to protect the smokehouse. Independent voters who left the GOP over its reckless spending will need some sign that the party will not revert back to its old habits. Republicans in the House have taken a clear step to prove they are ready to govern. Now it is time for Senate Republicans to do the same.

Marc Thiessen is a weekly columnist for The Post and author of "Courting Disaster."

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