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.

Matt York/AP/file
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona greets supporters at an election night party in Phoenix Nov. 2. Flake has led the campaign on Capitol Hill for an earmark ban.

The freshly minted Republican ban on earmarks is already having an outsize impact on the culture of spending in Washington.

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.

Congress's 'cardinals'

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."

Quips Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who led an outspoken campaign to ban earmarks: “I expect to be on the Appropriations Committee next year, partly because nobody else wants to go on it.”

More oversight?

The Republican earmark ban is expected to have a greater impact in the House, where Republicans will hold the majority next year. For example, House spending committees will be able to spend more time on oversight of spending, rather than sorting through thousands of demands for earmarks.

“We’re already hearing talk about holding more oversight hearings,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “When the staff does not have to sort through 30,000 earmark requests, they have more time to address oversight issues. Earmarks accounted for a relatively small amount of money but took up an inordinate amount of committee time.”

On the Senate side, Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, a longtime supporter of earmarking practices, flipped his position after the 2010 campaign, and led his caucus to vote to ban the practice for two years. He is a calling for an earmark ban that applies to the Senate as a whole, but majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada opposes that move.

Lobbyists shift gears

The Washington lobby community, which thrived on the surge of earmarking in the 1990s, also opposed moves to end the practice, but is adapting to the changes. “Banning earmarks is absolutely the wrong move,” says David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists in Washington. “These members of Congress are elected to protect their districts."

"How can a faceless bureaucrat know what’s best for northern Virginia?” he asks, referring to the fact that, without earmarks, the individual federal agencies (such as the Department of Education or Agriculture) will have full authority to decide how to spend the money allocated to them.

Anticipating a shift away from congressional earmarking, lobbyists are already changing strategy, he adds. Instead of promising their clients that they will get help from Congress to pass earmarks, lobbyists will shift to lobbying the executive branch (which includes all federal agencies) to help clients win competitive grants.

“The same amount of money that went to earmarks will go to different things,” he adds. "Our aim will be to find those competitive grants for our clients."

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