Coalition challenges GOP on earmarks

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Even before the new Congress is sworn in, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and an emboldened coalition of tea-party-backed senators are challenging the Republican Party establishment by reopening a long-simmering debate over congressional earmarks.

GOP senators are planning an internal vote this week on a moratorium proposed by DeMint that would ban Republicans from passing earmarks - lawmakers' fiercely guarded practice of steering federal money to pet projects in their home states.

Earmarks are lampooned so much as pork-barrel spending that they have become seen by some lawmakers as political liabilities, but efforts to end the practice thus far have failed. And DeMint's moratorium, even if it passes, will be a symbolic gesture at best. It would be a nonbinding Senate Republican Conference rule, meaning GOP senators could sidestep the rule to insert earmarks into budget appropriation bills.

"Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory," DeMint, a prominent voice of the tea party, said in a statement last week. "Instead of spending time chasing money for pet projects, lawmakers will be able to focus on balancing the budget, reforming the tax code and repealing the costly health care takeover."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other earmark defenders, who say that banning the practice would not actually decrease the budget, have been canvassing the caucus in recent days, lining up votes against DeMint's moratorium.

"The problem is, it doesn't save any money," McConnell said last week on CBS's "Face the Nation." "What we really need to do is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt. And this debate doesn't save any money, which is why it is kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending."

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), another supporter of earmarks, said in an interview that banning earmarks "gives cover for big-spending members of Congress to look conservative. They start demagoguing the earmark thing and everybody goes, 'Oh, they must be conservative.' "

The vote, which appears likely to occur by secret ballot in a meeting Tuesday of GOP senators, is open to incoming senators and will be the first test of newly minted conservative senators' follow-through on their campaign pledges.

At least eight current senators are publicly supporting DeMint's moratorium, as well as five incoming Republican senators: Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.).

Paul has vacillated on the issue, suggesting to the Wall Street Journal that he would advocate for Kentucky's share of earmarks as long as the earmarks are appropriated at the committee level in a transparent manner. But he later told CNN: "I will not earmark anything, and I will not support earmarks."

In the House, Republicans are expected to vote next week on a measure to ban all earmarks in the new session that begins in January. Last year, House Republicans undertook a one-year moratorium on all earmarks. House Democrats passed a similar ban, but only on earmarks for private contractors.

"Earmarks have become a symbol of a dysfunctional Congress and serve as a fuel line for the culture of spending that has dominated Washington for too long," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a joint statement Friday.

Boehner and Cantor called on President Obama, long an opponent of earmarks, to veto any spending bill that contains them.

Obama waded into the debate Saturday in his radio address, calling on Congress to "put some skin in the game" in reforming the budget. He stopped short of endorsing DeMint's proposal, but said he supports lawmakers who believe "we can't afford what are called earmarks."

"We have a chance to not only shine a light on a bad Washington habit that wastes billions of taxpayer dollars, but take a step toward restoring public trust," Obama said.

The amount of money allocated in congressional earmarks has declined over the past three years, from $18.3 billion in fiscal 2008 to $15.9 billion in fiscal 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The Democrats who control the Senate have expressed no desire to revoke this power. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other veteran lawmakers have repeatedly won reelection by highlighting the earmarks they secured for their states.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said earmarks are "an important part of the constitutional duty of Congress and they have been vital to fortifying the physical, social and economic infrastructure of my home state of Hawaii and the nation."

The issue could create the possibility of cross-Capitol chaos, if the Senate submits final appropriations bills containing earmarks to a House that has pledged to ban them.

Some Senate Republicans are defending earmarks by saying banning them simply cedes to the Obama administration the power to allocate federal dollars.

"Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do," McConnell, who won reelection in 2008 in part by touting his earmarks, said after a recent speech to the Heritage Foundation.

Inhofe evoked the Constitution, saying that the Founding Fathers intended to give the legislative branch earmark authority as a check on the executive branch's control over government spending.

"Every time you kill an earmark, it would transfer whatever that amount of money is to the president," Inhofe said. "In Oklahoma, if I'm not taking care of the needs of Oklahoma . . . Obama's not going to do it. He doesn't even know where Oklahoma is. And people in South Carolina and Oklahoma, they pay taxes too."

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