Political Hay

Mark Sanford Bails Out

A Democratic ploy to punish South Carolina's governor may instead hand him a powerful weapon.

By 2.19.09

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Last November, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in an effort to publicly repudiate the ongoing talk about states increasing personal and national debt by accepting multi-billion dollar bailouts from Washington.

In an op-ed titled "Don't Bail Out My State," Sanford wrote:

I find myself in a lonely position. While many states and local governments are lining up for a bailout from Congress, I went to Washington recently to oppose such bailouts. I may be the only governor to do so.

But I suspect I'm not entirely alone, as there are a lot of taxpayers who aren't pleased with Christmas coming early for politicians. And I hope these taxpayers make their voices heard before Democrats load up the next bailout train for states with budget deficits.

Though only written three months ago, the dollar amounts Sanford mentioned in his op-ed ("Washington...will borrow every dime of the $150 billion to $300 billion for the 'stimulus' bill now being worked on") seem like a quaint reminder of a pre-porkulus time long past. 'You have to admit, $150 billion sounds like a drop in the bucket only days after all but seven House Democrats, and every Senate Democrat plus Republicans Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe, voted for a $787 billion stimulus package that not one of them had read.

In part because of Sanford's vocal opposition to accepting bailout money from a federal government that simply borrowed the funds for the loan in the first place, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) inserted a clause in the "stimulus" bill that allows state legislatures, through passage of a concurrent resolution, to override Governors who refuse to accept bailout cash, and take the money anyway. Clyburn couldn't be expected to allow even a portion of his state to get cut out of the free trip to the candy jar, you see, so he needed to make sure an actual fiscally-responsible executive like Sanford couldn't put an ix-nay on the andout-hay for the Palmetto State.

According to the Hill newspaper, in an early January meeting between Congressional Democrats and then-President-elect Barack Obama, "Clyburn complained to Obama that Sanford's stance would hurt his rural, majority-black district that is suffering from high-unemployment."

"If it were left up to [Sanford] we would get nothing," Clyburn told Obama at the time.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has requested that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) look into the constitutionality of the bill's provision. Even if the so-called "Clyburn clause" (also known in legislative circles as the "Punish Mark Sanford provision") remains in place, though, the South Carolina Democrat's effort to ensure his district didn't "get nothing" out of a bill that disburses borrowed funds by the billions to states and Democratic supporters to no clear purpose will have provided Sanford with the best of both worlds politically.

Without the Clyburn clause, the passage of the "stimulus" package - which was signed by President Obama on Tuesday -- would have put Sanford into the unenviable position of being caught between the Scylla of remaining principled by refusing billions in federal dollars earmarked for infrastructure, public works, and other (far less worthwhile) projects -- and facing the political fallout that could have resulted from denying struggling portions of his state the "free" aid they think they need -- and the Charybdis of abandoning that principled position and attempting to direct the torrents of borrowed cash flowing south from Washington to projects that would actually do some good for underfunded and underperforming areas of the state while attempting to publicly rationalize the decision to ditch his oft-repeated opposition to accepting bailouts funded by increasing debt.

Thanks to Clyburn, though, Sanford has been transported from a vulnerable position on the "stimulus" package to sole occupancy of the catbird's seat -- without having to change his stance one iota or take any action that would increase his political vulnerability. The Clyburn clause enables Sanford, secure in the knowledge that the Palmetto state's legislature will almost certainly vote to overrule his decision, to refuse the nearly $10 billion available to South Carolina under the "stimulus" package.

Once he is overridden, Sanford will be in a position to make every effort to ensure those funds are used as responsibly as possible. Further, he will have been inoculated from the fallout that would have resulted from a decision either to abandon his principled stance and accept the funds himself or to deny his state the "free money" altogether -- something that would have created a sizable backlash regardless of the ultimately unstimulative effect of the borrowed cash infusion.

If his state override provision remains intact, Clyburn will have won a small victory, as his state and district will not have been prevented from getting a piece of the borrow-and-spend "stimulus" pie. However, the winner of the war will be Mark Sanford -- and he will have Clyburn to thank for providing him the ammunition, and the immunity, with which to achieve that.

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About the Author

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a columnist, a combat journalist, and a director emeritus of conservative weblog RedState.com.