With big spending bill's demise, is 'earmark' new dirty word on Hill?

Deficit hawks and watchdog groups see Thursday's demise of an omnibus spending bill in the Senate as a turning point. A critical mass of lawmakers, they say, are committed to an earmark ban.

Alex Brandon/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., holds a copy of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday.

There was no last hurrah for earmarks – known to supporters as “congressionally mandated spending,” and to critics as "pork-barrel" spending – as Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Thursday backed off plans to ram an earmark-laden spending bill through the Senate, before a House ban on earmarks takes effect in the new Congress.

Earmarks accounted for about $8.6 billion of the proposed $1.1 trillion omnibus for fiscal year 2011, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. Senate Democrats had hoped to pass the omnibus bill before funding for government runs out at midnight Saturday. Since the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1, Congress has funded government with a series of continuing resolutions.

But a GOP firestorm over government spending derailed that prospect. In addition, watchdog groups listed lawmakers who had earmarks worth millions in the proposed omnibus bill, including Republicans who had committed to a ban on earmarks in the next Congress.

Earlier this week, Senator Reid appeared to have the 60 votes he needed to avoid a Republican filibuster on the omnibus – counting Democrats and most of the GOP senators who serve on the powerful Appropriations Committee. But this week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky rallied the GOP caucus to oppose the bill. He is proposing a clean, continuing resolution at 2010 spending levels until Feb. 18, which would keep government offices open through then.

“By approving this bill, we would have helped cement for another year massive increases in spending and helped pave the way for a health-care bill most Americans are asking us to repeal,” Senator McConnell said in a floor speech on Friday. "The voters don’t want us to wait to cut spending and debt and fight the health-care bill next October. They want us to do these things immediately.”

In addition, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, a favorite of tea party activists, threatened to force the Senate into a line-by-line a reading of the 1,924-page bill that would have pushed a vote on the measure past Saturday’s midnight deadline, shutting down the government, unless Congress changed course.

In the end, Reid ran short of votes – and ran out of time. Had GOP obstruction continued, he would have had no chance of getting to other priorities, such as repeal of the Clinton-era prohibition against gay troops serving openly in the military or the DREAM Act to open a path to citizenship for college students or military servicemen and women who came to the US illegally as children.

But before backing down, Reid defended earmarks and delivered a blistering attack on the "hypocrites" who had requested member projects, even as they threatened to vote against bills that included them.

“Everyone should understand this earmark issue is simply ... a way for the executive branch of government to steal power we've been granted in our Constitution. We have a constitutional duty to do congressionally directed spending,” he said in an afternoon briefing with reporters on Thursday. “I am convinced that I do not want to give up more power to the White House, whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama. And I'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks, and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them but love to get them.”

Four hours later, Reid announced that he would not move forward on the omnibus bill, but instead would work with GOP leader McConnell to pass a continuing resolution to ensure government funding after Saturday.

In the past, earmarks have played a key role in building coalitions for big spending bills, as members have been reluctant to risk to their own projects by voting down a bill. But public outcries over millions for earmarks such as the so-called “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska have soured many voters and, increasingly, politicians on the practice.

“Earmarks are used to grease the skids for tax and spending bills,” says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, an early critic of earmarks. “It’s no accident that the omnibus and tax bills came up the same week this year.”

Moreover, new rules adopted by the current Congress require members to disclose earmarks they are requesting – a window that has made it much easier for watchdog groups to track such projects than in previous years. Within hours of the release of proposed omnibus bill this week, Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense produced reports identifying more than 6,000 earmarks and their sponsors. (In years past, such a report would have taken months of effort.) That release helped pressure Republicans to back off support of the bill.

“With moratoriums in the entire House and part of the Senate for fiscal year 2010, the playing field is fundamentally changed, and it’s never going to go back to where it was in 2006 and the previous decade,” says Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. In 2006, the last year Republicans controlled the House, Congress hit a high for earmark spending, at $29 billion. “This is an opportunity to try to get our spending house in order and get it right.”

In the 2010 midterm elections, some voters balked at politicians who touted their records of bringing home the bacon. Earmark fatigue figured in the recent primary defeats of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah and five-term Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania. Both Reid, of Nevada, and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington faced unusually tough races that turned in part on their record on earmarking.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that led a national campaign against earmarks and, later, health-care reform, on Friday claimed credit for helping to derail the omnibus bill.

“Without you and millions of fellow grassroots activists, there's no way Harry Reid would have pulled the $1.1 trillion 'omnibus' spending boondoggle off the Senate floor yesterday afternoon,” said AFP president Tim Phillips in an e-mail to supporters on Friday. His e-mail claimed “tens of thousands” of contacts with senators on this issue.

“After all your combined efforts, within days an outrageous $1.1 trillion spending bill that in past years would have sailed through with unified Democrat support and substantial Republican support was deader than a doornail,” he wrote.

Budget watchdog groups credit the mood of the electorate in the midterm vote.

“Americans sent an unambiguous message to the politicians in Washington on November 2 that they wanted self-dealing, pork-barrel spending to end and Congress to cut wasteful spending,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, in a statement. “It only took members seven weeks to heed their message.”

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