New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 17, 2010
WASHINGTON » In leading his colleagues in a vote Tuesday to ban the lawmaker-directed spending items known as earmarks, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and consummate congressional appropriator, averted a divisive clash within his caucus over the question of joining the new House Republican majority in enacting an earmark "moratorium" for the next Congress.
Given how zealously McConnell has defended the constitutional prerogative of Congress to control the federal purse, his turnabout was also the surest sign yet that the rightward pressure of Tea Party groups, and an anti-spending sentiment among voters, have begun to influence the way Washington does business.
At the same time, the renewed push against earmarks highlighted a potential conflict between the calls to eliminate the spending items and demands by many Tea Party supporters for greater fidelity to the Constitution. It is the Constitution, after all, that put Congress in charge of deciding how to spend taxpayer money. In pledging not to let individual lawmakers designate federal money for local purposes, the anti-earmark contingent is in effect ceding more power to the executive branch over how taxpayer dollars are spent, presumably not the outcome desired by the new crop of grassroots conservatives.
"If Congress does not direct any spending," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who supported the earmark ban, "the president will have 100 percent of the discretion in all federal programs. The failed stimulus is replete with examples of the president's earmarks that are wasteful."
The earmark ban is one of a number of issues forcing Republicans to navigate among conflicting priorities, like tax cutting and deficit reduction. But it has quickly emerged as a high-profile if somewhat symbolic test of the willingness of Republicans -- and some Democrats for that matter -- to respond to what they judge to be a message of the midterm elections.
Both supporters and skeptics of an earmark ban say that it would empower the executive branch, at least initially. While earmarks amount to a tiny trickle in the government's flood of red ink -- slightly more than three-tenths of one percent of federal spending -- most of that money would still be expended by federal agencies in the absence of earmarks but without specific directions from Congress.
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said, "I remain unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority."
But he said he would abide by his colleagues' wishes.
Some critics of earmarks say that the tension between the constitutional and anti-spending prerogatives is overblown. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said that Congress could easily maintain -- and even expand -- its purview over spending and still not engage in the earmarking process that has led to embarrassing corruption scandals and is often viewed as a way to generate campaign contributions.
"This notion that earmarks are an expression of our Article 1 authority, that's a pretty sad tale," Flake said in an interview, referring to the part of the Constitution that gives Congress power of the purse.
He said that defenders of earmarks often note that they account for a tiny percentage of federal spending, and Flake said that was the reason that Congress should stop paying so much attention to them.
Instead, he argued, Congress should focus on the vast bulk of the budget that it has already ceded to the administration's control and should improve the authorization process by which congressional committees judge the merit of spending items, the appropriations process in which the money is allocated and subsequent oversight.
Ralph Spampanato, an organizer of the Stark County 9-12 Patriots, in Ohio, said that he supported the idea of an earmark ban and that Congress should exercise its constitutional authority by adopting a budget and demanding that agencies stick to it.
"If they give them the money that's required to get their basic job done, there won't be any money leftover to spend," Spampanato said.
"We need to reinvigorate the authorization process," Flake said. "The problem with earmarking is you do very little authorizing, a lot of appropriating and very little oversight."
Supporters of earmarks, like the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., were quick to invoke the constitutional defense Tuesday.
"I believe personally we have a constitutional obligation, responsibility to do congressionally directed spending," Reid said. "I think I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what is important to Nevada, not what is important to some bureaucrat down here with green eyeshades."
But Democrats may be even more divided than Republicans on the issue. While not yet endorsing a ban, President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to work with Republicans on limiting earmarks. And although the Republicans' ban would not be binding on Congress, they could block any bill containing Democrats' earmarks.
McConnell, in a speech Monday announcing his new view, strongly defended some of his own past spending items, singling out two projects that he said were extremely important to his home state, including an effort to clean up hazardous waste at a plant that produces enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.
Still, McConnell added, "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 in Washington."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group that has long fought against earmarks, said the recent election results made a continued defense of earmarks politically untenable.
"To say, 'Hey, thanks for your votes, we're going back to business as usual,' that was really going to be damaging to their credibility."
Other appropriators, including Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, expressed astonishment at McConnell's change of heart, seeming to view it as a betrayal of the bipartisan fraternity that has long characterized the spending panel.
"I am disappointed," Inouye said in a statement, "that Minority Leader McConnell has abruptly reversed his long-standing position and now supports ceding congressional authority over important spending priorities to the executive branch of government."
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., are pushing for a vote by the full Senate to ban earmarks.
McCaskill, acknowledging she was bucking her party leadership, said that sometimes longstanding traditions need to go.
"I think it's important to be willing to rock the boat for reform in the institution," McCaskill said. "There are many things about the Senate that we should all be proud of. But there's some really nutty stuff that has traditionally been done around here that makes no sense whatsoever."