Earmark ban: Why GOP freshmen might just be getting started

The size of the GOP freshman class in both the House and Senate means that Republican leadership will have to take it seriously. The earmark ban in the Senate, adopted by Republicans Tuesday, represents an early victory.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Freshmen congressional members and their staff arrive for their first day of orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday. Republican freshmen in the Senate have already won a victory, pressuring Senate Republicans to adopt a voluntary earmark ban.

The freshman class of 2010 – on Capitol Hill for orientation this week – isn’t following the conventional script about taking time to get to know the institution before throwing your weight around.

In a powerful debut, a handful of tea party-backed GOP freshmen pushed the Senate Republicans caucus on Tuesday to impose on itself a voluntary ban on earmarks – member projects often criticized as pork barrel spending – in the new Congress. Senate Republican leadership had long opposed such a move, but yielded to the pressure of outspoken senators-elect, who had campaigned to rein in wasteful spending, notably earmarks.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he would allow for a vote on whether to ban the practice entirely in the Senate.

For Senate Republicans, freshman orientation 2010 is an unusually important moment, if only for the size of the incoming class. Four years ago, freshman orientation for Senate Republicans was a brief meeting between lone freshman Bob Corker of Tennessee and Republican leader Mitch McConnell. In 2008, the GOP freshmen class had doubled – to two. This year, the incoming GOP class numbers 13.

“They are a very energetic class and determined to tackle spending issues. It’s a theme that unites them,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, after meeting with freshmen at a Republican luncheon Tuesday. “I don’t see any waiting to take the measure of the place. I see them all jumping right in.”

House Republicans open doors to rookies

On the House side, Republicans announced that the 80-plus freshman class will be given two elected spots on the leadership team – up from zero – as well as three representatives on the Republican Steering committee in the 112th Congress.

“The best kind of government is government close to the people, and no one is closer to the people than the members of our new freshman class,” said Republican leader John Boehner, whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, and chief deputy whip Kevin McCarthy of California in a joint statement on Tuesday.

“The new class will find a willing ear at all levels of our party,” says Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, chair of the House Republican Conference.

In the 435-member House of Representatives, freshmen are typically seen but not heard. Three-time Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas famously advised freshmen: “Don’t try to go too fast. Learn your job. Don’t ever talk until you know what you’re talking about…. If you want to get along, go along.”

The special role for freshmen is rare, but not unprecedented. In 1995, House Republicans gave the bumper class that helped Republicans take back control of the House one seat at the leadership table, but no first-term lawmaker has had such a leadership presence since then.

“It means that House Republicans feel this is an important class … and a historic election,” says Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. “It constitutes 25 percent of the [GOP] conference, so they should have a seat at the table and have input in leadership decisions.”

Freshman Democrats also eye reform

Nor is the reform energy in the new freshman class limited to the Republican side of the aisle. Democratic Sens.-elect Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Chris Coons of Delaware bucked a strong Republican wave in midterm elections by embracing a reform agenda, including fiscal restraint.

“My first concern of incoming senators is jobs and the second is the deficit and debt – and I think those concerns are very broadly shared,” says Senator-elect Coons.

The newcomers' presence has encouraged reformers in earlier classes to renew their own reform drives. Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, John McCain (R) of Arizona, and Mark Udall (D) of Colorado announced today that they aim to force a floor vote on a binding earmark moratorium through fiscal year 2013, as early as this week.

“I’ve been working to change the earmark culture in Washington since the day I was sworn in, but frankly it’s been a lonely fight for Senators like Dr. Coburn, Senator McCain and me until very recently,” said Senator McCaskill, who is also pushing for a spending cap and an end to the practice of allowing senators to place anonymous “secret holds” on nominations.

Newcomers say that the public cares about the dysfunctional ways of the Senate and backs reform. “All my wise and experienced consultants said that no one was interested in Senate rules: it’s too arcane and abstract, forget about it,” says Senator-elect Blumenthal. “But I started talking about secret holds and filibusters and it gripped people’s attention, not just political science professors.”

“The Class of 2010 is getting all the attention, but the reform debate to change the Senate goes back to the Classes of 2006 and 2008,” says Sen. Wyden (D) of Oregon. “Earmarks are just the beginning.”

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