A First Test for Republicans

Republicans’ hands have been strengthened by a wave of voter angst about big-spending and business-as-usual in Washington, D.C. But have they landed on their limited-government feet? The first test of that question comes next Tuesday.

That’s when Senate Republicans will likely vote on a proposal to bar themselves from requesting earmarks. Last year, House Republicans adopted that policy for themselves the day after House Democrats limited their earmarking to non-profits and government bodies.

The Senate Republican earmark ban is championed by Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Its strongest opponent is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senator McConnell may have won his race in 2008 thanks to bringing home the bacon, but politics seem to have changed since then. Earmarker extraordinaire Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) was bounced out of his office despite larding his district and state with federal pork.

McConnell’s own state may have changed, too. Witness the election of Rand Paul (without McConnell’s help). Paul supports the earmark ban.

McConnell has framed his opposition to the earmark ban as an argument for preserving Congress’ “discretion”—that is, its authority over the spending of federal dollars. Without earmarks, the administration will decide where the money is spent. But there’s a pretty long list of things McConnell could work for if he wants to defend Congress’ prerogatives, such as:

- Forcing the administration to be transparent about the grants it doles out.

- Limiting  or eliminating the administration’s grant-making and spending discretion.

- Withdrawing all the other massive delegations of authority that Congress has given to the executive branch.

- Reducing spending and cutting taxes so that spending discretion is where it should be: with the taxpayers who earned the money in the first place.

Earmarks are not a huge part of the federal budget, but that does not militate against ending them. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) calls them a “gateway drug to federal spending addiction,” which is a folksy way of talking about the political science of “log-rolling.” Former member of Congress Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), who has seen it first-hand, talks in this clip about how House and Senate leaders use earmarks to buy votes on legislation they want to get passed.

If earmarks go away as a tool for wheeling-and-dealing in Congress, members and senators will be less likely to sell out the country as a whole with bloated spending bills and Rube-Goldberg regulatory projects for the benefit of some local interest or campaign contributor.

I’ll be speaking next Monday at a Hill event on earmark transparency. The vote in the Senate Republican Conference is Tuesday. It’s a secret ballot, so any senator who doesn’t trumpet his or her support of the earmark ban almost certainly opposes it and supports the practice of earmarking.