On Tuesday, 11/2/10, Republicans won seats in the 112th Congress at nearly unprecedented levels. One week later it is being reported that one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), is opposing Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) proposal to ban earmarks.
One week later? Can’t we live with the illusion that Republicans are going to change things in Washington for more than a week?
McConell’s defense is that eliminating earmarks would effectively cede Congress’ spending authority to the White House while not making a real dent in the $1 trillion-plus budget deficit. McConell is also signaling his concern about the awkward politics of the situation: even if the DeMint moratorium passes, Republican senators could push for earmarks, given that the plan is nonbinding and non-enforceable.
I understand that passing a bill is, as they say, a lot like making sausage: “If you have a weak stomach, or you want to fully enjoy the final product, don’t watch the process.” I also understand that legislators want every tool at their disposal to help them pass their pieces of legislation, but can’t we have more than a week to celebrate our idea of a change in the way the sausage grinding of politics takes place when our guys are in charge?
An earmark, as defined by Wikipedia is a legislative (especially congressional) provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects, or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees. It’s a bribe in other words. It’s a way for a leading legislator to corral votes. It’s a way for a leading legislator to turn to a fellow legislator and say if I could have your vote on this bill, I’ll see to it that you get funding to build that bridge in your home state. I’m thinking Senator Byrd was a constant holdout on pieces of legislation, due to the fact that every third structure in West Virginia seems to be named after him.
Tea party Republicans railed against earmarks this campaign season, and now that many tea party members are headed to the Senate, longtime members of Congress are pushing for their first real shot at banning these member-directed spending provisions once and for all.
So why isn’t everyone on board?
The Senate GOP leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, is a conservative and longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has supported past bans on earmarks. But even he argues that earmarks–individual items that lawmakers personally insert into spending bills–serve a vital purpose for senators looking to bring home federal money to their constituents. “The earmark issue is about discretion–about an argument between the executive branch and the legislative branch over how funds should be spent,” McConnell said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There are many members of my conference who have said, ‘I don’t want the president to make all the decisions about how the funds are spent that might be allocated in my state.'”
McConnell reiterated much the same point on an appearance the same day on CBS’s “Face the Nation”–and added that, contrary to claims from fellow conservatives, he doesn’t believe an earmark ban will actually save any money.
The question becomes if it won’t save any money then why would it hurt to do away with earmark spending altogether? Republicans are now claiming that we’re talking about 16 billion. 16 billion, they say, is a drop in the bucket. That 16 billion is not their money to mess around with, it’s the money derived from the hard work of individual Americans, and these individual Americans tried to make a statement on November 2nd about how they feel their money is being spent.
South Carolina Republican star Senator Jim DeMint, a tea party star, is leading the push fora two-year earmark moratorium in the Senate as a way to attack “pork-barrel spending.” DeMint is gathering support for a vote next week within the GOP conference to create a rule banning earmarks, and he has gained a number of supporters.
One of these supporters is tea party Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, who back in March of this year started beating the drum to ban all earmarks in Congress.
But even Paul appears to be conflicted about the issue.
As Dave Weigel notes Tuesday for Slate, Paul suggested his stance on earmarks wouldn’t be as black-and-white once he entered office: According to the Wall Street Journal, Paul told its reporter that earmarks “are a bad ‘symbol’ of easy spending but that he will fight for Kentucky’s share of earmarks and federal pork, as long as it’s doled out transparently at the committee level and not parachuted in in the dead of night.”
“I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests,” Paul said.
Paul’s father, Texas GOP Representative Ron Paul, also supports earmarks, despite his profile as a small-government libertarian. He said in a 2009 House floor speech that while it may be popular to vilify earmarks, they make up just 1 percent of the U.S. budget–and that for members of Congress to forfeit discretion in spending outlays is tantamount to shirking their duty.
“It is the responsibility of the Congress to earmark. That’s our job,” Representative Paul said. “We’re supposed to tell the people how we’re spending the money. Not to just deliver it in the lump sum to the executive branch and let them deal with it.”
He added that there is no firm definition of what constitutes an earmark versus a spending provision. Some earmarks do directly benefit a member’s district or state, Paul noted, but other spending projects — such as a weapons system that benefits a particular U.S. manufacturer — are not considered earmarks.
The fact that Ron Paul is for keeping earmarks may sway some, and it may open the eyes of others. “It’s 1 percent of the U.S. budget,” he says. “It’s only 16 billion,” say others. How about we (Republicans) say that we’re going to make a symbolic statement here then? How about we attempt to give expressed definition to earmarks in the 112th Congress that will be set as a precedent for all sessions of Congress going forward? How about we make a bold move, however symbolic, in this regard?
In some respects, McConnell is asking for his fellow Republicans to understand that this is the way it’s done in Washington. Those of us who are not politicians, and who have never had to make sausage because that process is done for us, ask the question: ‘does it have to be done that way?’ and isn’t there another way of doing things that doesn’t cost us and our children and grandchildren so much? How long have earmarks (or spending provisions) been the ‘only’ way of doing things? And isn’t it kind of the point when we elect what we consider the best and the brightest among us to represent us in office to find another way of doing things that we believe the previous guy screwed up? Shouldn’t our response to McConnell and the Republicans who are complaining about this proposal be similar to the response that the NFL has issued to the defensive players who have complained about the new rules on hitting: ‘Hey, you’re lucky you have the job you have. If you cannot adapt to the way we want things done, go find a job elsewhere.’