Earmark ban

Mitch McConnell bowed to reality with his statement on earmarks yesterday. It couldn’t have been easy, and it shouldn’t have been.

Earmarks are an essential part of our constitutional process. For any member of Congress (House or Senate) to willingly give power away to the executive branch in such a haphazard way is troubling.

In 1215, a bunch of Anglo-Saxons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, which required him to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no "freeman" (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right that is still in existence today in England.

Our version of the Magna Carta was the Constitution, which explicitly gives the power of the purse to the legislative branch. Those Tea Party advocates who carry their copy of the Constitution in their coat pockets ought to take a look at Article 1 sometime. They spend so much time poring over the meaning of the First and Second amendments that they seemingly overlook the actual meat of the document.

That being said, the Tea Party and many others in the Republican base look at the earmarking process as some sort of corrupt act, as if bringing home a percentage of the spending that goes on in Washington is somehow unseemly.

And let’s not kid ourselves. The earmarking process did lend itself to corruption. One only need follow closely the criminal case against Duke Cunningham to find that certain members of the legislative branch were getting away with simple thievery.

As a matter of spending, earmarking is not really the problem. Sure, there is some horse-trading that happens with the earmark process, but usually it is a fairly mundane process. You put in your request, you make your case to the Appropriations staff, and if that doesn’t work, you make your case to the subcommittee chairman, and if that doesn’t work, to the full-committee chairman, and if that doesn’t work, to the leader or the Speaker. Far less frequently, although it does happen, votes are traded for earmarks.

This is how the legislative branch works. It is not a particularly elegant process (certainly not as elegant as a monarchy, for example), but it works, because building consensus on how to govern this country takes hard work and, sometimes, some additional resources.

We have a curious situation now when it comes to the earmark ban. House Republicans have sworn off earmarks. (They do that periodically.) Senate Republicans now have sworn off earmarks (although I have feeling that more than one Republican senator will blatantly ignore the rule). That means that the only earmark game in town comes with Senate Democrats, since they still run the spending committees.

Republicans have a simple choice. They can accept spending bills that include none of the spending requests (which have been banned) but do include all of the requests of Democrats everywhere. Or they can refuse to pass any bills that include any earmarks, and then count on the president to sign a continuing resolution that keeps the government running at current levels.

One other point. Redistricting will be on the minds of just about every member of the House, but more specifically, every member of the House who might lose his or her seat. Those members won’t be able to prove their worth by bringing home the bacon, because they have sworn off all pork for the foreseeable future.

We will see how long this ban lasts.

I hope the Tea Party advocates caught President Obama’s grin as he gladly accepted the Republicans’ decision to give him and his party total control over spending this year.



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