Mitch McConnell didn’t bother to conceal the reason he caved to the anti-earmark faction of the Republican Party: he sensed the political winds were kicking up, so he tacked to safe ground. “Make no mistake,” McConnell, who by himself requested nearly $1 billion dollars in earmarks since 2008, said Monday. “I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.”
By shelving his principles and enlisting in an anti-earmark battle that has been a rallying cry for the Tea Party movement that helped propel Republican gains, McConnell has turned the skirmish into one of the key flash points of the lame-duck session. The GOP, nudged by Sen. Jim DeMint and a cadre of incoming Tea Party freshmen, are backing a moratorium on earmarks, the process by which lawmakers can apportion funds for projects in their districts. That pins Democrats accustomed to bringing home the bacon in the uncomfortable position of defending a procedure that has emerged as an emblem of the capital’s corruption.
It’s easy to understand why larding up bills with pet projects piques the public, but there’s a good argument that earmarks get a bad rap–or, at least, are perhaps more reviled than they are detrimental. Not all earmarks are wasteful, the process is less murky than it once was, and the allocations represent a mere sliver–often less than 1%–of overall spending. It’s easy to chuckle about egregious examples, but most folks appreciate new roads, military installations and other pork projects when they’re the ones being fed. In an August Pew survey, more than half of respondents said they’d be more likely to vote for a Congressman with a record of procuring government money for his district.
President Obama–whose own record on the matter has shifted repeatedly–has denounced the practice, but Democratic leaders remain cold to an earmark ban. “I believe personally that we have a constitutional responsibility to do Congressionally directed spending,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters massed in the Capitol on Tuesday. “I am not in favor of delegating my personal responsibility to the White House.”
That argument was echoed Tuesday by several other members of Reid’s caucus after both parties gathered in the capital to hold leadership votes. “I’m going to continue to advocate on behalf of Nebraska,” said Senator Ben Nelson of the Cornhusker State. “Those who are trying to get rid of earmarks keep saying it’s going to reduce spending, and it doesn’t reduce spending,” Nelson said. “Shifting [spending] from elected officials to nameless, faceless bureaucrats is, in my mind, shady logic.”
“I’m certain the people of Hawaii did not elect me to be a rubber stamp to any executive,” Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye said after the party caucus met this morning. “I think I know a few more things about Hawaii’s problems than even the president.” Noting that earmarks represent less than 1% of the federal budget, Inouye added, “You can wipe out all of it and you won’t balance the budget.”
A few Democrats, however, are partnering with their Republican colleagues to push for a moratorium. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Udall of Colorado joined Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn and Arizona’s John McCain in pushing for a vote on a binding earmark moratorium. Reid indicated he would allow a vote, which could come as soon as Wednesday. Asked to size up her colleagues’ objections to an earmark ban, McCaskill said, “I think they feel very strongly about having the prerogative to make funding decisions on an individual basis. It’s a lot of power, and I think people are reluctant to give up the power to make a solitary, stand-alone decision as to where federal money is going to be spent.”
In other words, she’s not buying the notion that they feel a constitutional obligation to dole out money for their district. “This ‘power of the purse’ argument is horseradish,” she told reporters, noting that the use of earmarks only found wide favor beginning in the 1970s. McCaskill disputed the argument that the fuss over earmarks outweighed their importance. “It has more impact than people realize…It bleeds over into a whole lot of other decision-making.”
On the Republican side, McConnell’s change of heart has left Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe a lone and lonely voice in the GOP. (Incoming Missouri Republican Roy Blunt is also reportedly opposed to a ban, but hasn’t been as vocal in defending the practice.) On Tuesday Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, the Senate Appropriations Committee vice chair and a prodigious porker, announced he would support a moratorium. “I remain unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority to determine federal expenditures, but an earmark moratorium is the will of the Republican Conference,” Cochran said in a statement.
By kowtowing to the will of the Tea Party and DeMint, McConnell spared himself some internecine back-biting at a moment when the activists who put their faith in the GOP to rein in spending are lurking in the wings, waiting to turn on lawmakers who violate their trust. Ironically, none other than the Minority Leader recently made a cogent argument dismissing the issue as a mere distraction. “This debate doesn’t save any money, which is why it’s kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending and get the federal government’s discretionary accounts under control,” McConnell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. True enough. For all the talk about cutting spending, it’s telling that they’re spending much of their time on an issue that makes negligible progress toward that goal.