After taking control of the House of Representatives in a wave election in 2010, House Republicans decided to extend their moratorium on earmarks, a controversial budget tactic that allow members to insert pet projects in spending bills without so much as a committee hearing or vote.
But before the GOP took control, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who would later become House Majority Leader, suggested that the moratorium on earmarks may only be temporary, which would be a slap in the face to fiscal conservatives and Tea Party activists that helped the GOP come back to power. Cantor was quick to amend his remarks, but it looks like House Republicans have learned little. Reuters notes that they are considering resuming the practice of earmarking:
The huge federal transportation bill was in tatters in early March when Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama posed a heretical idea for breaking through gridlock in the House.
In a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, Rogers recommended reviving a proven legislative sweetener that became politically toxic a year ago.
Bring back earmarks, Rogers, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, told his colleagues.
Few members of Congress have been bold enough to use the “e” word since both the House and Senate temporarily banned the practice last year after public outcries about Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” and other pork barrel projects.
But as lawmakers wrestle with legislative paralysis, there are signs that earmarks - special interest projects that used to be tacked onto major bills - could make a comeback.
This is part two in a debate between Doug Mataconis, a contributor at Outside the Beltway and United Liberty, and Jason Pye, editor of United Liberty, over whether the current debate over earmarks is distraction from the larger fiscal issues facing the nation.
Over the last several years, there has been much debate in Congress over earmarking, which is the process of designating funds for a specific purpose in a spending bill. Critics of the practice call most of these earmarks “pork barrel projects.”
Earmarks are an issue for several reasons. They can distort the marketplace, allowing the government to pick winners and losers. More often than not, the cost of an earmark is greater than the benefit, a point that is especially true with mass transit projects. And there is almost no sunlight on how they are inserted into appropriations bill.
There also is not much public support for the practice. According to a CBS News poll conducted in 2007, 67 percent of the public viewed earmarks as “not acceptable.”
Members of Congress use the practice in order to secure funds for their districts and proudly point them out during their next campaign to prove they are in Washington to “bring home the bacon.” Leadership of parties in Congress will often use earmarks to entice members to vote a certain position on legislation. The 2003 expansion of Medicare and the 2007 emergency spending bill for Iraq are both examples of this practice.
This is part one in a debate between Doug Mataconis, a contributor at Outside the Beltway and United Liberty, and Jason Pye, editor of United Liberty, over whether the current debate over earmarks is distraction from the larger fiscal issues facing the nation.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans will take up the issue of whether to forswear earmarking during the upcoming session of Congress. On one side stands Jim DeMint who contends that earmarking is a corrupting process that helps increase the size of spending bills. On the other stands Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who contends that earmarking is an important legislative prerogative and that eliminating it would do nothing to cut Federal spending. While earmark opponents do have a point that the process can be corrupting when not done transparently, the truth is that the so-called “war on earmarks” is a diversion from the real battles that have to be fought in order to reduce the size, scope, and power of government.
Let’s take the Omnibus Spending Bill passed early last year as an example.
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):
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.
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.
Scroll down to see the list of members support or opposing the Senate GOP moratorium on earmarks beginning in 2011.
Senate Republicans are feeling the pressure from the tea party movement on imposing a moratorium on earmarks, which is set for a vote on Tuesday, November 16th:
Tea Party Patriots (TPP), a national umbrella organization of local Tea Party groups, is asking its members to call Republican senators and demand that they agree in a caucus vote next Tuesday to forgo all earmarks in the upcoming Congress. In an e-mail to their 134,000 online members headlined, “Our first battle with the newly empowered GOP,” the group’s national coordinators single out for phone calls the two highest-ranking Republicans in the Senate, among others.
McConnell and his veteran allies, such as Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), are reluctant to give up the perquisites of their seniority and the hundreds of millions of dollars they annually send to their home states for pet projects. The Tea Party Patriots’ call to action asks members to call their home-state senator if he or she is a Republican who has not committed to supporting DeMint’s amendment. In addition to McConnell and Inhofe, it lists five other senators to call, of whom three are in the Republican Senate leadership: Minority Whip John Kyl (Ariz.), GOP Conference Chair Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and Conference Vice Chair John Thune (S.D.). The other two senators on the hit list are Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John Barrasso (Wy.).