Tennessean: TN senators back freeze on special spending

D.C. Republicans lead symbolic step against waste

Posted on November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON — Newly invigorated Senate Republicans, with backing from Tennessee's senators are expected to take a small but symbolic step today to show that they're serious about curbing spending.

They will formally back a moratorium on "earmarks," the thousands of local projects stuffed into legislation that add up to billions of federal dollars.

Tennessee senators support the move but point out that the overall problem is federal debt.

For the most part, the state's congressional delegation has sworn off the spending requests.

Sen. Bob Corker has traversed the state, railing against special spending and in favor of capping federal expenditures during his presentation on the national debt.

"Earmarks are incredibly flawed," he said. "I think it's a great move, even if it's more symbolism than substance. Spending is our No. 1 problem threatening our economic security." 

Special spending usually is inserted into legislation by lawmakers for bridges, buildings and other pet projects back home. It 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.

"We should not mislead Americans by saying that an earmark ban will do much to reduce the federal debt," Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a statement. "Cleaning up earmarks is good short-term policy, but as long-term policy it would undermine the Constitution because instead of placing a check on the president, it turns the checkbook over to him."

Alexander said that in an emergency he reserves the right to ask Congress and the president to approve special spending measures, such as funds to help those affected by the devastating May flood. 

But Senate Republicans are expected to endorse barring special spending after they got a fresh boost Monday from GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who previously had been skeptical of such a ban.

Republicans in the House of Representatives also plan to vote on a ban later this week. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, has not made a special spending request for several years, nor has Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

"She has abided by a self-imposed ban," Blackburn's spokesman Claude Chafin said. "Her last earmark was in 2007. You just can't put spending items into a bill in the last minute without giving it some thought."

Some Dems fight funds

Cooper is one of five House Democrats who refuse to make requests for special spending.

"I've fought against earmarks for years," he said. "It's about time that Congress followed my lead. Better late than never."

Other Democratic House members from Middle Tennessee have requested special funds for local projects. Last year, when Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro; Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Pall Mall; and Rep. John Tanner, D-Union City, posted their 2010 budget requests on their websites, they asked for more than $160 million worth of special projects.

However, Republicans won all three of those congressional seats in the Nov. 2 election. Gordon and Tanner did not seek re-election, and Davis lost to Republican challenger Dr. Scott DesJarlais.

A symbol of waste

The setting aside of funds for special projects has become symbolic to many of Congress' fiscal indiscipline. The GOP push to ban them holds political significance for that reason, especially now, two weeks after an election when voters resoundingly said they want less, and more responsible, spending.

Democrats have been reluctant to back a moratorium, despite a call Saturday from President Barack Obama to revamp the process, though he stopped short of calling for a ban on such spending.

"It's a good-government issue more than a fiscal one," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

McConnell seconded that view Monday.

"I don't apologize for them," he said in a Senate floor speech. "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.

"Unless people like me show the American people that we're willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things," McConnell said, "we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government."

Sen. Reid disagrees

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada disagrees.

"Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada. He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met," said his spokeswoman, Regan Lachapelle.

The anti-special spending push has been led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

"I am proud that House and Senate Republicans have united to end the earmark favor factory," DeMint said in a statement Monday. "Earmarks have greased the skids for runaway spending and bad policy for decades. It's time for Congress to stop focusing on parochial pet projects, and instead focus on cutting spending, devolving power and decisions back to states, and working on national priorities like entitlement and tax reform."

The issue isn't lost on potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney urged support for the ban Monday, saying it would "send a powerful message that we will no longer tolerate business as usual on Capitol Hill."

Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks special spending, explained its symbolic power: "To voters, it's special-interest spending, and spending where more powerful lawmakers get more, and (it is) also a tool to gain votes."

House Democrats are likely to discuss changes in the policy this week but are unlikely to back a ban.

However, since the GOP will control spending bills in the House next year, the party will probably strike special spending from legislation there. In the Senate, Democrats will retain a majority, setting up a potential showdown on the issue when the two chambers must agree on spending legislation.