Senate Dems defend earmarks as GOP votes to ban practice

Senate Democrats on Tuesday defended the congressional system of earmarking even as their GOP colleagues approved a voluntary two-year ban on the practice.

There was scant support among the chamber’s majority party to follow the lead of Republicans who voted in a closed-door conference meeting to ban the practice of tucking home-state pork into appropriations bills. The vote was almost unanimous.

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Instead, Democrats defended the age-old practice by noting they had already improved the system’s transparency in 2008 and that they reserved the right to seek funding for their states’ needs.

“We have a constitutional obligation and responsibility,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I have an obligation to the people of Nevada.”

Several Democrats mocked the ban and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) surprise decision to back it.

“I’m not ready to throw in the towel. Apparently Mitch McConnell is,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Appropriations Committee member. “The arguments being made to ban earmarks are that it’s going to reduce spending. That’s nonsense. It’s not. It just changes who decides — from elected officials, on the basis of what they’re hearing from local folks, to nameless, faceless bureaucrats.”

“It’s an integral part of how we function. It should be allowed to continue,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), also a member of the Appropriations panel. “Maybe there could be more guidelines and more transparency, but who’s to judge someone else’s home-state needs?”

Senate Republicans held a 45-minute conference meeting Tuesday evening on the earmark ban, eventually approving five separate, non-binding resolutions to roll back spending, cancel unspent stimulus funds, start a federal hiring freeze and reduce federal spending to 2008 levels.

Emerging from the meeting, GOP senators acknowledged the votes weren’t binding on individual senators but denied they were merely symbolic. Senators said the voice-vote was “close to” unanimous.

“It’s an expression of policy, it’s an expression of intent, and by the way, it’s an expression that we’re listening to the American people,” said GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

“It’s very important, and it suggest that we are listening to the voters and we responded in a big way,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the ban’s chief proponent. “The fact that it was close to unanimous says that we’re willing to cut our own spending, take away our parochial pork. And if the nation sees us doing that, then they may believe us on big issues.”

It could become practically impossible for Democrats to hold onto the practice. Republicans take over the House of Representatives in January, and GOP leaders there have already pledged to follow a similar ban. And President Obama’s statement on Monday, which praised the GOP decision, may make it difficult for Senate Democrats to insert or defend any earmarks in appropriations bills.

Democrats said it was simply too early to tell how such a scenario would play out.

“We’ll have to see what happens when the rubber meets the road and there’s a critical piece of infrastructure that’s needed back home — a hospital or a children’s facility or something like that,” said Lautenberg. “This is only the third inning of the game.”

“What does all that mean? Could Obama veto something? Would the House not bring something up, or take something out?” asked Appropriations Committee member Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). “This is kind of a developing story. We don’t know yet.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) disagreed fervently with her fellow Democrats. McCaskill teamed up with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to try to attach a two-year earmark ban onto a food-safety bill scheduled for a Wednesday vote. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said a decision on whether to allow that would be made by the conference on Wednesday.

McCaskill said she expected the support of only one other Democrat — Mark Udall of Colorado, who announced his position on Monday. McCaskill said the earmark process was too “flawed’ to keep in place.

“I hope I’m surprised, but I am not confident” more Democrats will support the two-year ban, McCaskill said.

“As an auditor who counts numbers, I try to count votes the same way — very conservatively — and I think counting the numbers, I would be surprised right now if we got more than two,” she said.

Other Democrats said they would consider going along with a ban, but only if it applied to all states and did not allow for any favoritism.

“I don’t want to put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “But if we’re going to do a total ban, and everyone disarms, then I’m fine with that.”

Earmarks have been a lucrative business on K Street, where lobbyists seek to work with members to insert favored projects into spending vehicles. This week, several lobbyists said firms should have already been moving their clients away from earmarks and toward competing in federal grant programs.

“For those people who have not made that shift already, they are the dinosaurs waiting for the asteroid,” said Rich Gold, head of the public policy group at Holland & Knight.

Gold pointed to several different programs, such as TIGER grants run by the Transportation Department and COPS grants under the Justice Department. Lobbyists plan to take a harder look at government initiatives that stick to formula funding and authorization bills, such as the surface transportation reauthorization bill.

Nevertheless, smaller, more rural districts will be hurt the most by the proposed earmark bans since they will likely see less federal funding, according to Gold.

On a webinar hosted by the Ferguson Group for the appropriations lobby firm’s clients Tuesday, CEO Bill Ferguson Jr. said local governments will have to look at more grant programs.

“When I first started this business back in the mid-’70s, there were no such things as earmarks,” Ferguson said. “We need to start to rethink the ways we have been operating for the last couple of years and respond to the new changes that are coming down the line.”

Telling clients to tout “job creation” and join in private-public partnerships, one of the webinar’s presentation slides estimates there are 1,000 grant programs at 26 different federal agencies. Another reads, “One constant through the years: There are always going to be resources coming from Washington to local communities.”

Darren Goode and Kevin Bogardus contributed to this report.