Republicans are engaged in a tough fight over government spending. But this time, the battle isn't just between fiscal conservatives and the GOP's own big spenders. The battle over earmarks has split the two of the Senate's most conservative members.
Last week, House Republicans agreed to a one-year unilateral moratorium on earmarks: they'll insert no special requests for local projects in this year's spending bills. Democrats had banned earmarks for specific corporations the day before. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wants Senate Republicans to follow in the House's footsteps.
"This is exactly the kind of bold leadership Americans have been demanding, and I applaud House Republicans for putting their country ahead of earmarks," DeMint said in a statement. "House Democrats talked a good game this week, but only House Republicans took real action. Finally, Republicans are getting serious about earning back the trust of American taxpayers."
But Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) -- ranked by National Journal as the most conservative senator in 2009 -- disagrees. In an interview with TAS, he argued that the anti-earmarks crusade will end up ceding Congress's constitutional authority over appropriations to a liberal executive branch rather than reducing any federal spending. "A lot of the big spending Republicans are distracting people from the real spending," Inhofe says.
Earmarks even divide families. Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, is a supporter of earmarks and has requested a number of them for his district. "I love Ron Paul!" former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once told your humble servant in an interview. "Who do you think helped him get all his earmarks?"
Rand Paul, the congressman's son and an insurgent Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky, has taken a no-pork pledge and supports DeMint's proposed earmark ban. "The Tea Party movement is an effort to get government under control," the younger Paul said in a statement. "I'm running to represent Kentuckians and to dismantle the culture of professional politicians in Washington. Leadership isn't photo-ops with oversized fake cardboard checks. That kind of thinking is bankrupting our nation. Senator DeMint understands that and has taken action to stop it."
Where most rank-and-file conservatives stand is clear, however: earmarks are seen as a fancy congressional code word for pork-barrel projects and wasteful government spending. That's why pressure for a ban has built despite the Republican appropriators' reluctance. Inhofe argues that conservatives need to understand that earmarks affect the disbursement of federal funds rather than the level of spending. "Eliminating an earmark -- I wish we'd call it an appropriation -- doesn't cut any spending," he says. "You don't save any money. It just results in a bureaucrat -- or worse, the EPA -- making the determination of how that money will be spent."
Inhofe acknowledges that many earmarks are frivolous. "I argue on the floor all the time against appropriations that are stupid," he says. "The remedy is to vote them down." But if bureaucrats in the Obama administration get to determine where the funds go instead, the money won't be any better spent. "I don't even care if the president is a Republican," Inhofe says. "The Bush administration did a terrible job in 2007 when we only passed two appropriations bills and a lot of the decisions were made by the executive."
Nevertheless, Inhofe believes the Democrats will profit from a Republican earmark moratorium. "The Democrats will be the big beneficiary," he says. "That money will be shifted their Democratic president." That's what led him to take his pushback against the anti-earmark campaign to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page:
An earmark moratorium won't save any money. Why? Because instead of reducing the federal budget, it will empower Obama administration bureaucrats to spend the funds members of Congress would have sent home through earmarks. Also, last year's earmarks accounted for 1.5% of discretionary spending. Where's the focus on the other 98.5%? Earmarks are nothing more than a distraction from the real spending and debt crisis facing our nation.
DeMint disagrees. "Earmarks waste billions of taxpayer dollars every year and lead to corruption through campaign kickbacks and secret deals," he said in his recent statement. "Worst of all, earmarks are used to bribe lawmakers to vote for bills that explode the debt and balloon the size of government. Earmarks were used to grease the skids for the bailouts, stimulus and health care takeover."
"Without defining an earmark, we say earmarks are bad," counters Inhofe, who says the role of earmarks in swelling the truly significant spending programs is overblown. "[The House Republicans] defined it as appropriations and authorizations." He continues: "If you have defined an earmark as an appropriation that has not been authorized, where the appropriators just swapped out deals on the floor and gave things to their friends, that goes on. I would say kill that."
DeMint promises to continue his quest for an earmark moratorium in the Senate. Inhofe says his contrarian position will be vindicated, just like his early global warming skepticism. Either way, Republicans have gotten themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place on spending. It will be difficult for them to regain their reputation for fiscal discipline while attacking mainly small but silly spending items. Yet it will be equally hard to be credible on reining in entitlements if Republicans continue to request a large share of the special projects for their own districts.
It's a dilemma that can be solved only by genuine conservative leadership -- and a generous amount of overspending by the other party.
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