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Republicans in Congress are going to be interesting to watch for the next two years, as they try to cope with the influx of the Tea Party Republicans who have just been elected to office. Some of these skirmishes are happening already, as both parties prepare to hold their official party caucus meetings this week, where they will vote on their leadership positions and on their policies for the next Congress. The Tea Party Republicans failed to elevate Representative Michele Bachmann to the lowest rung of the House leadership positions, causing her to withdraw her candidacy last week. But just today, the Tea Partiers seem to have won a policy battle over in the Senate, as the establishment Republican leader Mitch McConnell just announced that he has seen the light on banning earmarks — a dramatic reversal of his position up to this point.
The Washington Post initially reported on McConnell’s new stance on earmarks thusly:
“Make no mistake, I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them,” McConnell said. “But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight. And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government.”
According to the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense, McConnell has been one of the most prolific beneficiaries of the earmark system. In the three years since public disclosure of earmark requests was required, the former member of the Appropriations Committee has sought nearly $1 trillion worth of earmarks, mostly benefiting his home state.
McConnell defiantly guarded the earmarking practice as recently as last week, arguing that eliminating earmarks doesn’t reduce spending, but rather redirect it. But few of his colleagues were willing to stand alongside him against tea party groups and conservative leaders outside of Congress who have elevated the earmark debate to a litmus test for fiscal restraint.
Got that? McConnell admits that earmarks are “a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.”
I’m sorry, I had to pause for a moment there for some debilitating side-splitting laughter. Because I’ve written about this before, and know a bit of the history. In one of the first articles I wrote earlier this year, I cited an article by Scott Lilly that appeared in the The Huffington Post. Lilly’s article certainly gives McConnell’s statement some needed perspective:
In the years leading up to their seizure of power in 1994 it seemed that Republicans care about eliminating pork more than almost anything. But after the election was a different story. Not only did they not make good on their promise to banish earmarking they literally sent the process through the roof. Government programs that had never previously contained earmarks became saturated with them. Programs containing only a few earmarks became almost nothing but earmarks. The Labor-Health, Human Services and Education bill went from having no earmarks in 1994 to $33 million in earmarks in 1996, nearly a $100 million in 1998, half a billion in 2000 and more than $1 billion in 2002.
A report that I prepared along with others on the Appropriations minority staff in the fall of 2003 described how dramatically the practice had careened out of control. It indicated, fore [sic] instance that the number of earmarks in Defense Operation and Maintenance account had swelled from 33 before the Republican takeover to 232 by 2004. In Defense Research and Development the number of earmarks grew from 219 to 1299. This was happening in nearly every appropriation bill and it wasn’t just happening in Appropriations.
The report drew only snickers from Republicans who were committed to conquering new heights in the realm of earmarks. Perhaps the pinnacle was reached with the passage of the 2005 highway bill. Instead of containing 487 earmarks — the number that sparked the all night protest by Republicans on the 1991 highway legislation — the bill contained 6,371 earmarks controlling the expenditure of $23 billion in federal money. As a report I did for the Center for American Progress indicated, the bill not only contained more earmarks than any highway bill in history it contained more than all highway bills combined.
In other words, one of the things that makes McConnell’s statement hilarious is that he is, in essence, saying: “Save us from ourselves, please!” But it’s just one of the reasons for the statement’s hilarity, and by no means the only one.
Did you notice the figure given in the Washington Post article? McConnell has personally requested one trillion dollars of earmarks — just in the past three years alone. That is simply an astounding amount of earmarkage (unless it’s a typo). Many earmarks — again, to put this in perspective — are measured in the millions of dollars, and only the largest are measured in billions. Which means you have to pile up a whopping number of earmarks to get to one trillion dollars. Especially in only three years’ time. Once again: “Save me from myself!”
[Correction: The AP is now reporting that the site LegiStorm has totaled 158 earmark requests by McConnell for a total of "$927,872,000" over the past two years. And I see now that the Washington Post has corrected its own story to read "$1 billion." Which is a much more believable figure, I have to say.]
But, having said all of that, McConnell is largely right in a certain sense. The entire battle over earmarks is one of symbolism over substance. The problem for McConnell is that he — for the first time in memory — has been put into the position Democrats normally find themselves in ideological battles with the right: the position of defending a complex and nuanced position against bumper-sticker slogans and soundbites. Look in the near future for McConnell and other establishment Republicans to be in exactly the same position again (in other upcoming battles with the Tea Party Republicans) much to the establishment Republicans’ consternation (one assumes).
There are three facets of the earmark battle that are going to be overlooked by virtually everyone in the mainstream media. The first is that earmarks are truly small change, when it comes to the federal budget. The second is that earmarks themselves are weapon in the power struggle between Congress and the White House. And the third is that the Democrats have reduced the number and size of earmarking considerably ever since they came to power in Congress.
Earmarks represent, at the most, a few percent of the federal budget. But even though they only total up to around two percent of the budget, the symbolism is pretty bad. From a story on earmarks from the Washington Post back in June:
House and Senate lawmakers have received nearly $2 million in campaign contributions this election cycle from organizations for which they had sponsored earmarks, according to a new report by two nonpartisan watchdogs.
Over half of the members of the House and Senate accepted money for the November elections from recipients of their earmarks, according to the report, released Thursday by the Center for Responsive Politics and Taxpayers for Common Sense. Thirteen senators and nine House members received more than $20,000 from companies and organizations that were beneficiaries of their earmarks.
In total, lawmakers spent $15.9 billion on earmarks in the current fiscal year, only a fraction of which went to campaign contributors, according to the group. That figure is less than the $19.9 billion spent in fiscal 2009.
Earmarks, which direct spending to specific recipients, have become a political issue as the federal deficit has ballooned. Critics charge that the spending is directed to lawmakers’ pet projects, bypassing competitive bidding and other fairness safeguards. Democratic leaders said this year that they will allow earmarks only for nonprofit organizations. Republican leaders said they would seek to ban all earmarks.
This is not at all surprising — people who benefit from earmarks donate money to the politicians (of both parties, I should point out) who insert these earmarks into the budget. It’s pretty obviously “pay to play” even though Washington politicians would doubtlessly (and with feigned indignation) deny that accusation. As far as Congress critters are concerned, the fact that they hand out piles of federal money in largesse, and the fact that recipients of such money decide — completely independently from the first fact, of course — to give the politicians a bunch of campaign donations are utterly separate matters, and can in no logical way be linked to each other by any sane person.
Of course, others (defined as: anyone who is not actually a politician) see it differently. Including the Tea Party folks, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The amusing thing in the current battle over earmarking (to me, at least) is that if Republicans get their way and ban earmarks entirely for the next two years (they have the power to do this in the House, but Democrats could block such a move in the Senate), they will have ceded power to none other than the Executive Branch currently in the hands of President Barack Obama. Yes, you heard me right — Republicans will be giving up legislative power and handing it to an executive who is a Democrat.
This, it should come as no surprise, is rare. The last instance I can recall is when Republicans passed the powerful budgetary tool of the line-item veto, and handed it to President Clinton to use as he saw fit (this later was declared unconstitutional, but the Republicans who passed it at the time had no way of knowing that was what would happen).
The federal budget is determined by Congress. But, for the most part, this is just a matter of deciding which federal departments get how much money each year. This money is handed over to the departments, who then decide how to spend it. This is an oversimplification, but a handy way to think about things for the moment. What earmarks do is to tie up some of this money before it gets to the department — which gives Congress the power of saying “$100 million of this department’s budget will be spent on my brother-in-law’s paving firm to repave the parking lot at the airport I use to commute to Washington,” for instance (if you think that’s an exaggeration, sadly, it is not — remember that earmarks are where the “bridge to nowhere” came from). If Congress doesn’t micromanage the money in the form of these earmarks, then the president gets to decide where the money gets spent (usually, not on the Podunk Airport’s parking lot, in other words). Which is why, on a certain level, if Republicans succeed in banning earmarks, then they are giving up a budgetary tool they’ve been using to keep the White House reined in on how it spends federal dollars.
McConnell tried to make this point to his colleagues, but to no avail. As I said, you can have an intellectual argument about the balance of powers, and checks and balances, and all that sort of thing — but your reasoned argument will be trumped by Tea Party Republicans screaming in the streets. Which, one sincerely hopes, is only the first time McConnell is put into such a position by this up-and-coming radical faction of the Republican Party.
The whole thing truly is about symbolism, and McConnell found himself on the symbolically-wrong side of the debate. He must have realized this over the weekend, especially since it was reported that the leader of the “ban the earmark” movement in his caucus was prepared to make a big stink over the issue — by forcing the Republican Senate Caucus to vote on the issue publicly. Apparently their bylaws state that only leadership votes are supposed to be held as secret ballots, and policy issues are supposed to be voted on during “open” (publicly-accessible) meetings. Which would have forced the establishment Republicans to go on public record as being fans of earmarks. What with the success of the Tea Party faction in the Republican primary elections this year, this could have come back to bite any Republicans voting to keep earmarks in their next campaign.
The most hilarious actor in this mini-drama has to be Senator-elect Rand Paul. Paul campaigned on how evil earmarks were, but then — within days of being elected — stated that he’d be in there with McConnell, fighting to keep Kentucky’s earmarks flowing. One would assume that Paul has now flip-flopped on the issue again, and will vote for the earmark ban. This would mean Paul will have changed his position twice within about a week — bringing him back full circle to his original position. One wonders what his Kentucky Tea Party supporters think of this display.
Democrats are also in somewhat of a pickle on the issue. They tried — in true Democratic incrementalist fashion — to change the earmarking process gradually, over the past few years. They dramatically cut the number of earmarks upon taking Congress back (by halving them in the first year, if memory serves me correctly). Even more importantly, Democrats successfully banned “anonymous” earmarks, forcing all members of Congress to sign their name to any earmarks they request (which was a huge ethical victory over the way earmarks used to happen). More recently, Democrats actually started the fight over banning earmarks last year. But — again — they did so in a “one tiny step” fashion, by banning earmarks for “private companies” only. Republicans, sensing an opening, jumped in to suggest a complete one-year ban on all earmarks, for everybody. House Republicans actually voted for such a ban amongst themselves, but Senate Republicans balked at the idea (as Senate Democrats balked at the “private companies” incrementalist ban from their party’s House members, I should mention).
President Obama, for once, is out in front of his own party on the issue, and showing some real leadership. I actually called on him to do this last week, but with a fairly pessimistic tone:
Obama could play some politics during the lame duck [Congress], but probably won’t. If Obama were so inclined, he could exacerbate the Tea Party’s struggle with establishment Republicans right now — by voicing strong support for ending all earmarks, for instance. This would indeed put the cat among the pigeons, so to speak. Earmarks are vilified routinely by some on the Right, far beyond their actual impact on the budget (more as a symbol than anything else). John McCain made a honking big deal out of them during his presidential campaign, and Obama signaled recently that he’s largely against them as well. If Obama sided with the Tea Party faction of Republicans, it would cause all sorts of consternation within the already-growing Republican Party power struggle. But, as I said, Obama will likely not involve himself in this intra-Republican fray, because doing so would carry a certain amount of risk with it.
Over the weekend, Obama’s spokespeople were signaling that Obama had indeed thrown his lot in with the Tea Party Republicans, in favor of a complete ban. Today, when the Washington Post updated their article (to correct that erroneous “$1 trillion”), they also added a quote from Obama:
“I welcome Senator McConnell’s decision to join me and members of both parties who support cracking down on wasteful earmark spending, which we can’t afford during these tough economic times,” Obama said. “As a Senator, I helped eliminate anonymous earmarks, and as President, I’ve called for new limitations on earmarks and set new, higher standards of transparency and accountability.”
Mitch McConnell, quite obviously, has realized that this battle was really not worth fighting, and has thus thrown in the towel on his opposition to the outright ban on earmarks. Politically, it was a smart thing for him to do, especially considering all the Tea Party rage at “wasteful spending” and “secret deals” and suchlike. The optics of the situation were bad for McConnell, especially after Jim DeMint started talking about forcing a public vote on the issue within the Republican Senate Caucus. And it isn’t like there aren’t other ways for Congress to specify how the federal budget is spent — earmarking was merely the most obvious, and the easiest to understand of many parliamentary procedures which cause almost exactly the same result. So it’s not like personalized spending requests are going to magically disappear on Capitol Hill or anything.
In other words, the victory itself may be no more than symbolic, in the grand scheme of things. Banning one form of Congress locking up money without addressing all the others is going to mean an inevitable exploitation of the methods that remain (once the lobbyists figure out the new way of playing ball). But beyond this, it was indeed a political victory, in a fight between Tea Party Republicans and establishment Republicans in the Senate. The Tea Partiers walked away with this win — one of the first they’ve achieved since the election. We’ll see which other battles they choose to fight within their own party, and which battles the establishment Republicans choose to hold their ground on. The Tea Party Republicans have chalked up an initial victory over McConnell, and it’ll be interesting to see which fights they pick next.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant