The Commercial Appeal: Congress to get rid of earmarks

Top Senate Republican changes course on pork projects, cites 'wishes of the American people'

Posted on November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON -- In an abrupt shift that's likely to cement a dramatic change in the ways of Congress, the top Republican in the Senate fell into line Monday behind demands by House leaders and tea party activists for a moratorium on pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has long defended the practice, said he's now heeding the message that voters sent in midterm elections that swept Democrats from power in the House. He said he can't accuse Democrats of ignoring the wishes of the American people and then do the same thing himself.

"Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said in a surprise announcement from the Senate floor. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."

McConnell's move heads off a battle with conservative senators who had signaled that they would force a vote today on banning the practice. That vote is now a formality.

House GOP leaders had already endorsed a ban on earmarking.

Earmarking is a longtime Washington practice in which lawmakers insert money for home-state projects such as road and bridge work into spending bills. Critics say peppering most spending bills with hundreds of such projects creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.

Earmarks accounted for $15.9 billion of the federal budget in fiscal 2010, which ended Sept. 30. That was less than 1 percent of all federal spending and would have put barely a nick in last year's $1.29 trillion deficit.

McConnell, a 26-year veteran of the Senate and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, had argued in the past that banning earmarks would shift too much power to President Barack Obama and wouldn't save taxpayers any money.

Fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee agreed with that.

"Only Congress -- not the president -- appropriates funds," he said in a floor speech earlier this year. "When Tennesseans come to see me about making Center Hill and Wolf Creek dams safe or improving housing at Fort Campbell, my job is not to give them President Obama's telephone number."

On Monday, Alexander issued a statement saying he would "support a moratorium on earmarks because they have become a symbol of wasteful spending."

"I will respect this moratorium," he added, "although in an emergency case I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve measures of urgent importance to Tennesseans, such as funds to help those hurt by the devastating flooding last May."

Obama, who endorsed a crackdown, praised the move by McConnell.

"We can't stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem," Obama said in a statement. "I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children."

McConnell's move also forestalls a possible fight with the House, where likely Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had put people on notice that there won't be any earmarks in spending bills.

“House and Senate Republican leaders are listening to the American people and are united in support of an earmark ban,” Boehner said. “This is a strong first step — though only a first step — towards making the tough choices required to get our country back on track.”

A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, freshly re-elected after a campaign in which he boasted of his ability to bring home the bacon to Nevada, said the Democrat believes it's up to each senator to decide whether he or she will seek earmarks.

McConnell’s move came as a relief to GOP colleagues caught in the middle of a behind-the-scenes battle between Senate traditionalists and tea party favorites like Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who have joined with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a longtime battle against the bipartisan practice of earmarking.

“That’s great,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “Sounds like the issue is behind us.”

Sen.-elect Boozman to back ban

Republican Sen.-elect John Boozman said Monday that he'll back a GOP moratorium on earmarks in the Senate, days after saying he was worried what such a restriction would mean for some projects under way in Arkansas.

Boozman, who defeated Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Nov. 2 election, said he would vote for the proposal to effectively bar any Republican senator from getting earmarks.

Boozman said he believed the moratorium was the first step toward controlling federal spending.

"After reviewing the Senate earmark proposals, the first step to deliver what Americans have asked for is to abstain from this spending," Boozman said in a statement Monday. "While not all earmarks are bad, it is clear that the system is broken and in need of reform."

Lincoln had touted her support of earmarks and had criticized Boozman during the campaign for supporting a GOP moratorium on the projects in the House.