Pork Barrel Spending
Just a few weeks after voting to extend a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks, some so-called conservatives are looking for away around the ban, fretting that their pet projects will now be put at risk:
[S]ome Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”
“It’s like what beauty is,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). “Everyone knows what a bridge to nowhere is, or an airport that lands no airplanes, or a statue to you — everyone knows that’s bad. It’s easy to say what an earmark isn’t, rather than what an earmark is.”
The issue has popped up most frequently at the Conservative Opportunity Society, the caucus founded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the early 1980s. During their Wednesday morning meeting last week, caucus members had a long discussion about how the Republican Party could redefine “member-directed spending,” as earmarks are formally called on the Hill.
Conservatives like Roe, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Iowa Rep. Steve King are among those trying to figure out a longer-term, sustainable way to get money back to projects in their districts.
“This isn’t trying to be too cute by half of what is an earmark and what isn’t,” Bachmann told POLITICO on Wednesday. “But we have to address the issue of how are we going to fund transportation projects across the country?”
Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) took to Twitter to put out the obvious hypocrisy of his colleagues:
“I support Congressman Jeff Flake [R-AZ] in his effort to be appointed to serve on the Appropriations Committee, and I join with incoming Majority Leader Cantor in expressing hope that other reform-minded Members of Congress will follow Jeff’s example in seeking appointment to the committee.
“The Appropriations Committee will be the scene of much action in the next Congress as we work to implement the Pledge to America, which calls for cutting spending to pre-’stimulus’ levels, repealing the job-killing health care law, prohibiting all taxpayer funding of abortion, and bringing greater scrutiny to the broken spending process in Washington. These priorities are among the priorities of the American people, and the Republicans currently serving on the Appropriations Committee are going to need all the additional help they can get in working to ensure the priorities of the people are met.”
Flake has been a thorn in the side of earmarkers in Congress for quite some time. Over the past few years, he has offered a series of amendments aimed at stripping pork projects out of spending bills. Flake often making the correlation between members who seek earmarks and corrpution; calling the House Appropriations Committee a “favor factory.”
The recommendations presented by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, failed to receive enough support to force action in Congress, though it did manage to receive more than a majority:
Eleven of the 18 members of President Obama’s fiscal commission voted Friday to embrace a bipartisan commission’s controversial plan to slash deficits by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade - too few votes to command quick action in Congress, but far more than even the panel’s most ardent supporters had predicted just a few weeks ago.
Among those voting yes were all three of the Senate Republicans appointed to the panel, including Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), a rock-ribbed conservative who endorsed the package despite a sharp increase in federal tax collections.
Two Senate Democrats on the panel also voted yes, including assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), an influential liberal who sought to bridge a major partisan divide by explicitly endorsing a gradual increase in the retirement age from 67 to 69.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), also voted yes, and Durbin predicted that Conrad would use the commission’s report as a basis for constructing the party’s next fiscal blueprint early in 2011.
As expected, the Senate voted down an amendment to S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act (a terrible bill), that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on earmarks (less than transparent process that is part of a larger, more expensive problem in Washington) for members of both parties:
The Senate Tuesday rejected a GOP bid to ban the practice of larding spending bills with earmarks — those pet projects that lawmakers love to send home to their states.
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans combined to defeat the effort, which would have effectively forbidden the Senate from considering legislation containing earmarks like road and bridge projects, community development funding, grants to local police departments and special-interest tax breaks.
The 39-56 tally, however, was a better showing for earmark opponents, who lost a 29-68 vote earlier this year. Any votes next year should be closer because a band of anti-earmark Republicans is joining the Senate.
Two-thirds (67 votes) of the current membership of the body were need to pass the ban. Seven Democrats voted for the moratorium. Eight Republicans voted against it.
Here are the seven Democrats (*outgoing member):
While some Republicans, such as Senator-elect Mike Lee of Utah, seem serious about taking strong stands on spending, Steve Chapman warns us not to count on them to back up their rhetoric during the mid-term election:
Republicans have had multiple opportunities to put their words into deeds, and each time they’ve declined. The first was with President Ronald Reagan, under whom the federal budget grew by 22 percent, adjusted for inflation. Though he often preached the virtue of a balanced budget, he never actually proposed one.
The GOP got another chance in 1994, when it gained control of Congress. After vowing to get rid of the departments of education and energy, Republicans left them alone. They failed to abolish a single important program.
They did force President Bill Clinton to cooperate in balancing the budget. But even though the end of the Cold War allowed cuts in defense appropriations, total federal spending grew faster than inflation.
Then there was President George W. Bush, who in his new memoir, Decision Points, claims to have been a staunch budget disciplinarian—which is like Kim Kardashian claiming to be publicity-shy.
“My administration’s ratios of spend-to-GDP, taxes-to-GDP, deficit-to-GDP, and debt to GDP are all lower than the averages of the past three decades—and, in most cases, below the averages of my recent predecessors,” he asserts.
This brings to mind the old jibe about his father: He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. When Bush the Younger arrived, federal spending was at the lowest level, as a share of GDP, since 1966, and the budget had a surplus.
Despite Republicans caucuses in both the House and Senate imposing a moratorium on requests for earmarks, the debate on the practice is still going on. Here is an excellent explanation by Veronique de Rugy of why earmarks are harmful:
In response to the argument that earmarks don’t actually increase spending, Jacob Levy has made a case that earmarks do: first, because diverting money to wasteful programs means that “all the needs that weren’t met this year will arise again next year”; second, because earmarks bills often emerge out of House-Senate committees with higher appropriations levels; and third, because the earmarking members of Congress are the same powerful committee members who set the appropriations level, and “the knowledge that they were going to have a chance to start shoveling pork a little bit later in the process affected how much they appropriated at the beginning.”
Also, who remembers this interesting working paper by three Harvard economists on what happens to a state when one of its senators becomes chair of a powerful committee? First, it causes the value of earmarks to the state to increase by almost 50 percent; second, it depresses private capital investment and R&D spending in the state. In other words, earmarks crowd out the private sector.
Here is a great editorial out of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on why the tea party movement should turn its it attention toward farm subsidies:
The stakes really are not very large, about $15 billion to $20 billion per year for the U.S. as a whole. Some $10 billion to $15 billion is in cash payments to farmers, including land rental under the Conservation Reserve Program. Another $5 billion or more goes into subsidized crop insurance.
For Minnesota, direct payments in 2009 came to $852 million, of which $114 million was for CRP acres. Overall, our state came fifth in national rankings. Neighboring states also placed high, with Iowa second, North Dakota sixth, South Dakota ninth and Wisconsin 11th.
Murray County in southwest Minnesota, where I grew up and own farmland, got $15 million, a typical amount for the uniform rectangular counties across the southern part of the state.
These sound like big sums, but relative to total cash flows in farming, especially with growth in Asia propelling crop prices higher, they no longer are that important. The tragedy is that relative to the cost to the Treasury, they do little good for anyone.
Compared with an annual budget deficit of $1 trillion, $15 billion or $20 billion saved by complete elimination of farm payments is a drop in the bucket. But so are many other programs dear to the heart of one interest group or another.
That is the point. If the tea party adherents in the new Congress are not able to completely chop out entire programs like this, their movement will quickly become a debacle, economically and politically. Committed tea party members will be bitterly disappointed by the realities of Washington, just as true believers in Supply Side economics like Reagan Budget Director David Stockman were back in 1982.
House Republicans in the 112th Congress approved a ban on earmarks Thursday morning.
As expected, the soon-to-be majority party in the House extended the ban they adopted earlier this year.
Incoming freshman and TV reality star Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) offered the ban in a closed-door session with the GOP conference of more than 240 members.
Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) applauded his conference.
In a statement, Boehner said “earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people. This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington. I applaud Rep.-elect Duffy for his leadership on this critical issue. He and the rest of his historic class of House freshmen are here because Washington Democrats refused to listen to the American people and stop the spending binge that threatens our children’s futures.”
By the way, extension of the moratorium was passed unanimosly.
There had been some question back in August whether House Republicans would keep their moratorium in place, which was enacted earlier in the year, if they took control. But thanks to a grassroots push for members in both chambers to stay away from pet projects as a sign that they were serious about cutting spending.
In what is a win for the tea party movement and fiscal conservatives, Senate Republicans agreed to a two year moratorium on earmarks yesterday:
Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to abandon their use of earmarks in the new Congress, a move setting up an unusual alliance with the White House and exerting pressure on reluctant Democratic lawmakers to follow suit.
The vote by Senate Republican represented an internal party decision. But along with a similar step expected today by counterparts in the House, it provided an early example of the influence of the tea party and the rising conservative movement that fueled the mid-term electoral wave.
I’m unsure of the tally on this, our last count showed 33 members of the Republican caucus in favor of the moratorium and five opposed.
A couple of Senate Democrats, Mark Udall of Colorado and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, are will join Republican efforts to bring a vote on banning the practice to the floor of the chamber as early as today.
McCaskill has been critical of earmarking for some time, and yesterday she joined Pat Toomey, the Senator-elect from Pennsylvania, in calling for an end to earmarks.
Supporters of Sen. Jim DeMint’s proposal to impose an earmark moratorium on Senate Republicans (what he calls a test on whether or not the GOP got the message that voters sent two weeks ago) received welcome news yesterday as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reversed course, deciding to back the plan:
I have seen a lot of elections in my life, but I have never seen an election like the one we had earlier this month. The 2010 midterm election was a “change” election the likes of which I have never seen, and the change that people want, above all, is right here in Washington.
Most Americans are deeply unhappy with their government, more so than at any other time in decades. And after the way lawmakers have done business up here over the last couple of years, it’s easy to see why. But it’s not enough to point out the faults of the party in power. Americans want change, not mere criticism. And that means that all of us in Washington need to get serious about changing the way we do business, even on things we have defended in the past, perhaps for good reason.
If the voters express themselves clearly and unequivocally on an issue, it’s not enough to persist in doing the opposite on the grounds that “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That’s what elections are all about, after all. And if this election has shown us anything, it’s that Americans know the difference between talking about change, and actually delivering on it.