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'Earmark' ban proves an early obstacle to GOP unity

Fresh off their midterm election victory, some Republicans want to extend a moratorium on pork spending — a common symbol of perceived government excess. But others argue it wouldn't save money.

November 09, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A dispute among influential Republican lawmakers over a ban on "earmark" spending threatens an area of potential bipartisan agreement between the GOP and White House in the aftermath of last week's midterm election.

The incoming House Republican majority has proposed extending a moratorium on earmarks, which are funds requested by individual lawmakers for specific projects back home. On Tuesday, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said that he would press his GOP colleagues in the Senate to adopt a similar moratorium when lawmakers returned to Washington next week.

But several senior Republican lawmakers consider earmarks part of their constitutional obligation to determine how federal money is spent. They disagree with election-year rhetoric that government spending can be reined in with a strict earmark ban. A ban is an idea that "doesn't save any money," said Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader.

The disagreement is surfacing at a crucial point. Republicans, fresh from winning control of the House and gaining seats in the Senate, will make their first attempt next week to convert ideas from successful political campaigns into governing policy.

Earmark spending is a favorite campaign symbol of government excess. Examples of pork projects go back years — among the most well-known is the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

Yet attempts to limit lawmakers' ability to steer funding to their home states regularly runs into dissent. Popular Capitol wisdom holds that one lawmaker's pork is another's vital infrastructure project, representing a road or hospital that would not get built without federal government funds.

The House GOP this year imposed a moratorium on earmarks within its own ranks as a way to burnish its conservative credentials heading into campaign season, particularly among "tea party" voters. Earmarks soared to unprecedented levels prior to 2006, the last time the GOP had been in the majority.

Senate Republicans, though, did not agree to such a ban. DeMint proposed a halt on earmarks this spring, but senators voted it down.

Now, in a first test of their newly bolstered numbers in Congress, Republicans in both chambers are returning to the issue. The GOP is intent on showing voters it understood the lesson of the election and the message of tea party conservatives who helped propel the party to power.

President Obama identified the earmark ban as an issue "we can work on together." Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said he would like to take Obama up on the offer.

Yet old spending habits are hard to break among Congress members who see the power of the purse as one of their greatest strengths. Although earmarks make up a tiny fraction of the federal budget, they are an enormous source of power for lawmakers to provide resources to constituents.

The Republican leaders of the main House and Senate spending committees are divided on the question. Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands supports an earmark moratorium, while Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi does not.

In recent days, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has appeared on 10 conservative radio talk shows across the country with an appeal about the importance of such spending.

"People now realize you can't have a ban on earmarks," Inhofe said.

If Congress chooses not to direct spending, Inhofe argues, the responsibility will fall to the administration, which already exerts influence over its own pet projects in the president's annual budget. Inhofe said his aim was to reform the earmarking process, not eliminate it.

The conservative Oklahoman, who is perhaps most widely known for calling global warming a hoax, is intent on branding earmark foes as "goguers" — those who demagogue the issue to score political points.

"It's the most demagogued thing I've run into in the years I've been in politics," Inhofe said. "Many of the big-spending Republicans demagogue earmarks so people think they're conservative."

Inhofe will argue for new Senate rules to make the earmarking process more transparent, without an outright ban.

But he will face a challenge from fellow conservative DeMint, who will be seeking an unqualified ban next week from his peers.

The South Carolina senator counts support from several newly elected colleagues — including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania — and other tea-party-backed candidates he supported in the election.

"Many Republicans are still addicted to earmarks and won't give them up without a fight," DeMint wrote in a letter to supporters Tuesday. "I know it's difficult to quit this habit."

He should know. DeMint confided to supporters, "I used to request earmarks too."

lmascaro@tribune.com

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