Streetcar Line

McConnell Fails Natcher’s Earmark Test

On pork battle, wrong Kentuckian leads the fight.

By 11.15.10

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell obviously isn't one to "dance with the one that brung him." When it comes to the Tea Party activists and other conservatives whose electoral work vastly increased his power, he kicks them in the shins and tells them to sit with the wallflowers.

Sen. McConnell's strenuous efforts to head off an attempt to ban special-interest spending "earmarks" are obnoxiously tin-eared. Completely apart from the substance of an earmark ban -- about which, more in a few moments -- the issue symbolically is perhaps the single most important indicator of whether congressional Republicans can be any more trusted with power now than they proved to be from 2000 to 2006. The conservatives and centrists who rose up in the recent elections -- to sweep Republicans back into a House majority and to give McConnell six more Senate colleagues despite ham-handed Senate campaign operations -- did so because they are deeply concerned about government debt, deeply frustrated by government intrusion into their lives, and deeply offended by self-serving business as usual in Washington. Local-interest earmarks are the grime-splattered, foul-smelling tokens of all these political offenses. To so quickly fight to save the practice of earmarking-as-usual is to spit in the face not just of Tea Partiers, but of the vast majority of Americans who may not know the details of congressional appropriating but who want a clear sign that Congress will change how it operates. In fact, a Rasmussen poll last month found that by a 60% to 31% margin, voters would "prefer a candidate who would work to cut federal government spending over one who would work to make sure his district gets a fair share of that spending."

What's even more absurd about McConnell's stance is that it puts the Republican leader well to the left of a New Deal Democrat and fellow Kentuckian who briefly chaired the House Appropriations Committee in 1993-94. Before he died, Rep. William Natcher was an institution in Congress, casting a record 18,401 consecutive floor votes. Nobody's idea of a Goldwaterite conservative, Natcher nevertheless banned earmarks from bills produced by the Labor-Health Appropriations Subcommittee that he chaired for many years. For McConnell to insist on a pork fest that even Natcher wouldn't countenance is to make a mockery of any claim that McConnell is a fiscal conservative.

What's worse is that McConnell has been making arguments in favor of congressional earmarking that just aren't true. He repeatedly claims that eliminating earmarks will not save a dime because the money merely will be redirected otherwise. This is nonsense. The government can spend only what Congress appropriates. If Congress chooses to cut total spending by the amount of the earmarks that would be eliminated, it could do so. Nothing -- not a single thing -- requires that Congress spend at the "top line" level set by the budget resolution adopted earlier in the year.

McConnell offers another bogus argument in saying that congressional earmarking is all that stands in the way of giving the executive -- in this case, President Obama and his minions, or the "unelected bureaucracy" -- unwarranted discretion in spending federal dollars. Again, this is ludicrous. Congress can set any limits on spending bills that it wants. And Congress can, through its authorizing process and through adequate public hearings, direct money for any important program it wants without running afoul of the earmark ban as proposed by South Carolina's stalwart conservative Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.

Nobody is suggesting that Congress give up its power to require that certain weapons programs, for instance, be maintained, or that the federal government does (or does not) finance a particular program open to all who qualify. All an earmark ban would do is keep Congress from demanding that a certain program or project be funded in one place over another, or that a contract be written is such a way that only one specific company, contractor, charity, or local government qualifies. The rule proposed by DeMint is narrow. It bans only those spending items that fit the following definition: "a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Senator providing, authorizing, or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process."

The Sunlight Foundation is more concise. It explains that "An earmark is an item that is inserted into a bill to direct funds to a specific project or recipient without any public hearing or review."

Banning these local porkers could not only save the $16.5 billion spent on earmarks this year (according to Citizens Against Government Waste), but also deprive members (and the president) of the means of horse-trading that leads to a member voting for expensive programs -- Medicare expansion, Obamacare, whatever -- in return to securing, say, an eponymous museum in his own district.

Earmarks are no pittance; they are the super-glue which holds together outrageously constructed edifices of big government -- edifices that deservedly would collapse of their own weight without the earmark epoxy to bind them.

A two-year ban on earmarks should be the absolute least Congress does to prove to the world that a new way of doing business, and a new seriousness about saving taxpayer dollars, is at hand. Sen. McConnell's fulminations to the contrary indicate that his own ears should be marked as closed both to the public's desires and to budgetary common sense.

Mr. Hillyer served on the payroll of the House Appropriations Committee in 1995 and 1996, when it cut $50 billion in actual dollars from domestic discretionary spending.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.