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.

Jim Young/Reuters
US Senate majority leader Harry Reid leaves a statement about leadership elections on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

Backed by a robust freshman class, Senate Republicans Tuesday laid out a reform agenda for the 112th Congress Tuesday that included a ban on earmarks, a restriction that senior GOP leaders had long opposed.

In a closed session late in the day, Republicans approved a resolution to ban the earmarks, member projects criticized as pork-barrel spending, for two years. Other resolutions, also nonbinding, included a moratorium on new unfunded mandates or entitlement programs, a federal hiring freeze on non-security employees, a return of unspent stimulus funds to the Treasury, and a cap on discretionary spending at FY 2008 levels.

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“It’s a good way to start out united as a party,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, a leader of the tea party movement and an outspoken critic of earmarking. “But there are thousands of earmark lobbyists in Washington looking for ways to get around this.”

Reid says he'd allow debate, vote

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, told reporters Tuesday that while he does not support such a ban, he will allow a debate and vote on the issue as early as January.

"I would be happy to work, to set up a reasonable time to have a debate on that and have a vote on it," said Senator Reid at an afternoon news conference.

Like many senior lawmakers, Reid opposes abandoning “congressionally directed spending” – the allocation of funding for projects, or earmarks – in favor of leaving the money decisions to officials in government agencies.

"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. So I am not going – personally going to back off of bringing stuff back to Nevada,” he said at the news conference.

“I think it's a tremendous step backwards. It just gives more power to the executive. … And I am not in favor of delegating my constitutional responsibility to the White House,” he added.

Some senior Republicans, who like Reid had experience on the powerful Appropriations Committee, laid out similar reservations to the resolution in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote.

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.

“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.

Senate's 16 new members arrive on Capitol Hill: Who are they?

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