How earmark ban is already changing Capitol Hill
In many ways, the Republicans' voluntary two-year earmark ban is limited in scope. But it's already undermining Congress's spending 'cardinals' and changing how lobbyists lobby Capitol Hill.
The freshly minted Republican ban on earmarks is already having an outsize impact on the culture of spending in Washington.Skip to next paragraph
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It is forcing lobbyists to reconsider how they do business. It seems certain to give members more opportunity to scrutinize federal spending. And it has turned what has long been Congress's most influential and sought-after post – a spot on the Appropriations Committee, which controls Congress's purse strings – into a poisonous assignment for many members.
Strictly speaking, the ban might have little effect on the federal budget's bottom line: Earmarks – projects mandated by members and often derided as pork-barrel spending – amount to less than 1 percent of federal spending. Moreover, the ban does not extend to Democrats, who still control the Senate.
But the tone on Capitol Hill has shifted noticeably since Nov. 2, suggesting that the overriding message of Election 2010 – federal fiscal discipline – is being heard, for now at least. And that, some hope, could have a deeper effect on federal spending.
The decline in interest in serving on the Appropriations Committee is perhaps the most obscure change to Americans outside the Beltway, but within Washington, it is a remarkable reversal of business as usual.
The heads of Appropriations Committees were once known as Congress's "cardinals" – kingmakers who decided where and how the federal largess would be spent. Often, notable portions of it were spent in appropriators' own districts. Members of spending committees brought home $12 billion in earmarks in the 2009 budget cycle, significantly outspending members on other committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Indeed, lobbyists specifically targeted members of appropriations, since appropriators were best placed to deliver results to fund their interests. That means a post on appropriations became a virtual ATM machine for candidates, promising them large campaign contributions from lobbyists.
Now, for Republicans, that is gone. And in an era of soaring debt, with spending panels looking more like a cutting room floor, members could be targets in future elections either for not cutting the budget or for terminating beloved programs.
“I’m hearing that it’s hard to get freshmen to go on appropriations committees,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, cochair of President Obama’s deficit commission, at a Monitor breakfast on Nov. 19. Nowadays, he says, the "cardinals" are "just purple in the face."