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Earmark ban: Common sense budget reform or 'tremendous step backwards'?

Senate Republicans decide to swear off earmarks. Now, they will try to persuade the Democrats to do the same. But many Democrats – and some Republicans, too – are wary.

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Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Appropriations panel, said he was “unconvinced” that ceding Congress’s "constitutional authority to determine federal expenditures" to the Obama administration would advance fiscal prudence.

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“But an earmark moratorium is the will of the Republican Conference. If this is what it takes to get Congress focused on the real steps needed to get our fiscal house in order, then I will take the views of my Republican colleagues to heart,” he said in a statement.

Speaking from the Senate floor on Monday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that presidents, too, waste taxpayer dollars. “Over the years, I have seen presidents of both parties seek to acquire total discretion over appropriations. And I have seen presidents of both parties waste more taxpayer dollars on meritless projects, commissions, and programs than every congressional earmark put together,” he said, citing the turtle tunnels and tennis courts added to the 2009 stimulus bill by the Obama administration.

Clash between two houses

House Republicans are proposing an identical ban, but unlike the GOP minority in the Senate, they have the majority to enforce it. That means that any earmarks will come through the Senate, setting up a clash between the two houses over appropriations bills and, possibly, a showdown with the White House.

“The president has to decide whether he will continue to do what he has done all along, which is to sign appropriations bills with earmarks,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes an annual Pig Book survey of congressional earmarks.

“The president can say: I will veto any bill with earmarks. That will be a clear sign to Senate Democrats,” he adds. GOP presidential candidate “John McCain said he would not sign a bill with earmarks, but the president has never said this.”

While earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, they are a major distraction for lawmakers and the budget process, he adds. “If members no longer have to deal with thousands of requests for earmarks, they will have more time to conduct oversight and take on the larger spending issues.”

“Banning earmarks is the easy stuff. We’ve got to get to the hard stuff on [reducing] debt and deficits,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, who is cosponsoring a bipartisan measure to ban earmarks for fiscal years 2011 through 2013. The measure allows members to raise a point of order on any spending bill that includes an earmark – a procedural block that requires 60 votes to overrule.

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