Battling Earmarks in Congress Posted by: McQ
on Monday, January 30, 2006
As we noted in our podcast yesterday, this will be an interesting week in Congress. The Alito vote starting today and on Feb. 2nd, the House chooses a new Majority Leader. Apropos of that, but in the Senate, two Republican Senators are waging a pretty lonely battle against earmarks:
Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn may force their colleagues to make an up-or-down public decision on proposals such as tucking $2 million for a public park in San Francisco into the nation's massive military spending bill. Last Dec. 20, this bit of pork was passed by Congress without debate and without a vote in the final version of the Defense Appropriations Act.
McCain and Coburn last Wednesday proposed a revolutionary change in the way Congress has done more and more of its business over the past two decades. They announced their intention to "challenge" future earmarks as a violation of Senate rules. That would have meant a roll call vote on each of the 15,268 special spending items in 2005 (nearly a four-fold increase over the previous decade) that individual members quietly slipped into massive bills in the dead of night.
McCain, a lonely voice in the Senate battling the bipartisan taste for pork, was joined last year by newly elected Dr. Tom Coburn, the flinty obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla. Even their combined voices probably would not have been heard were it not for the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal. Now, the demand for pork by politicians that consumed $27 billion last year could be endangered.
For Republican reformers, real reformers, the Abramoff scandal couldn't have come at a more perfect time. They can pretty much count on the Democrats to side with them because the Democrats are attempting to elevate this scandal into one with national election implications. So I'd guess they'd open to demonstrating their seriousness about political reform by working with Republican reformers.
The visiblility that has been given the race for the House Majority leader has moved it from being a sort of "inside baseball" thing which only political junkies note to one with huge symbolic connotations. If Roy Blunt is elected, most will take that as a sign that the Republicans are not at all serious about reforming and it will essentially be business as usual in Washington and on K Street. That could have implications in November of this year. However the elections of John Shadegg or to a lesser extent, John Boehner, would send a different signal altogether. Watch this closely on Feb. 2nd.
But back to the Senate:
Make no mistake that Republicans McCain and Coburn are climbing uphill against a bipartisan pork coalition, as was made clear from both sides of the aisle this week. "Who knows best where to put a bridge or a highway or a red light in their district?" said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, defending earmarks on the Michael Reagan radio program. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on PBS: "There's nothing basically wrong with the earmarks. They've been going on since we were a country."
Coburn disputes Reid's history. "Contrary to conventional Beltway wisdom," the freshman senator said, "the pork process is not an ancient tradition that is impossible to change." The 1982 highway bill contained 10 earmarked pork projects; 150 earmarks in the 1987 bill helped provoke a veto by President Reagan; the number rose to 1,400 in 1998, and to 6,300 in 2005.
There, in a nutshell, is the basics of the argument. Republicans who ran on the "less spending, less government" platform when they took the majority in Congress have now changed their focus from their principles and instead are engaged in the age old "tradition" of power politics — keeping power with the public's money. They have become what they despised in '94. And regardless of what conservatives may think of John McCain, he, at least, is attempting to do something about that in the Senate.
And as noted by Coburn, earmarks are not some sort of accepted tradition. In fact they're a little over 20 years old. The problem is, they've grown from 10 in 1982 to over 15,000 total (in Congress) and billions of dollars in 2005. That's completely unacceptable:
McCain took the floor last Dec. 20, as he has so many times in the past, with an inattentive Senate prepared to pass a $458 billion Defense Appropriations Bill, including funds for the war in Iraq. "During a war, in a measure designed to give our fighting men and women the funds they need," said McCain, "the Congress has given in to its worst pork-barrel instincts." These were among the earmarks he pointed out:
— $3,850,000 for the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Foundation at Manhattan's Pier 86 on West 46th Street in New York City. The district is represented by liberal Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
— $4.4 million for a technology center at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. This was included in $27.1 million earmarked for Southwest Missouri in this one bill by Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who is running for the permanent leadership post.
— $500,000 for an outdoor grade-school teaching project ("Summer Science and Adventure Camp") in Boswell, Pa. The district is represented by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who has become a leading critic of President Bush's Iraq policy.
— $500,000 for the Arctic Winter Games, an international sports competition on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Sen. Ted Stevens, president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, determined this was a fitting expenditure for a military supply bill.
Because of the present rules of the Senate, necessary and important bills, such as needed appropriations for military, can be held hostage to earmarks. And Senators on both sides of the isle know that. In classic 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" fashion, Senators trade votes for pork.
As we've seen in the explosive growth of earmarks over the past 20 years, this isn't a problem that is getting smaller or less of a problem. In fact it is getting worse and is indeed badly in need of reform.
I support McCain and Coburn's call for an up-or-down public decision on all earmarks. It'll do three things. It will raise the visibility of this now hidden process. Those submitting them will have to justify their rationalization for raiding the public treasure out in the open. Secondly, it will become an ordeal (as it should) which may cause many to shy away from submitting earmarks at all. And third, it will give some transparency to a process which is most often conducted in back rooms, out of the sight of the public.
The budget deficit is directly related to the growth of entitlement programs. The growth of non entitlement programs has been very limited over the last 6 years, with the exception of Homeland Security, established to mollify the liberals [with government guaranteed jobs to approximately 25K people] and the Defense Budget, which has grown substantially since the start of the the war on Terror. Medicare, medicaid and social security represent the largest amount of growth in the budget and those programs, while expensive, are still too popular to restrain or modify to reduce the budgetary risk to the government. The expectation is that government spending cannot be controlled until the entitlement programs [non-discretionary spending, in general] come under control. Good luck.
Orlando: I recognize this is a separate issue and that the mandatory spending is where the bulk of the problem lies. But the whole system needs to be reformed, and earmarks have become a growing problem. I’m simply recognizing a reform movement aimed at changing this problem area, noting it and signing on. That doesn’t at all mean I wouldn’t support the same sort of reform concerning mandatory spending or don’t understand the magnitude of that particular problem.
We need a conservative in the White House. One who does not send to Congress a budget that says let’s grow Education 100% over the next five years; but sends Congress a budget that says lets cut the education budget to *zero* (0). One who vetoes the pork; even if he losese a few of his vetoes he at least exposes the give away, flim flamers to the public. In other words a President with: integrity, brains and guts. Not a friend of Jack’s.
I’m not so sure that it’s accurate to say that the Republicans have become "what they despised in ’94."
It’s equally plausible to suggest that that position was a ploy to gain control, and that at the wink-and-nod level they knew exactly what they were doing. Put another way, the Republicans didn’t despise the Democratic "culture of corruption;" what they despised was that the Democrats, not the Republicans, were the beneficiaries.
I think it would be fairer to say that the Republicans have become what they professed to despise in ’94.