It all rides on earmark ban

As the Senate Republican Conference moves to ban earmarking by the chamber’s Republicans, the next question arises: What about the House? Will the new, young, reform-minded Republicans who now populate the lower chamber match the action of the Senate and ban budget-busting earmarks?

Inexplicably, the Senate Republican Conference vote will remain secret. We will have difficulty finding out who were the good guys and who the bad. But we do know that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) saved the day. With the reformers a few votes shy of victory, he switched sides, dramatically declaring himself in favor of the earmark ban.

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Now the question looms: Will incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) follow suit? If he does, a sharp difference will have emerged between the parties over the unrestrained and often corrupt practice of congressional earmarking. This issue — alone — could carry Republicans over the finish line in the Senate and expand their House majority. Earmarking has acquired such a bad name among the voters that it is truly casus belli. 

In a previous column, I cited the names of 20 Republican senators who were undecided on the ban. Despite the ridiculous policy of secrecy (didn’t we elect these guys?), I will publish in my column the vote of any senator who chooses to disclose how he or she voted. Their constituents deserve to know. 

If the House follows the Senate lead, it will mark a huge victory for reform. If it does not, the question is: Why not?

Earmarks contributed, in large measure, to the budget deficits that piled up during the Bush administration. Projects that were rejected by the administration came in the backdoor through earmarks.

Their way was paved by massive campaign contributions from lobbyists whose clients got the money. What emerged was thinly disguised bribery in which congressmen and senators traded earmarks and tax money for campaign contributions.

The new Republican congressmen ran pledging to abolish earmarks. Now that they have won, it is time to keep that promise. Should they fail to do so — or should Boehner deny them a vote — their supporters, particularly those in the Tea Party movement — will feel justifiably betrayed. The Senate vote puts them on the spot. The House majority must either act or consciously decide not to reform themselves, and face the consequences.

But it is more than the newly elected freshmen who are on the line. Who can have gone through 2010 and watched the defeats of Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson and so may other Republican luminaries without understanding that the wrath of the reformers and the torments of the Tea Party activists will be visited upon anyone who fails to live up to the promise of reform?

Even long-term incumbents in the House and Senate face the serious threat of primary challenges if there is no ban on earmarking this year. The issue is important enough, and memories long enough, that a wrong vote could be a primary-triggering offense.

These political facts of life make it even worse that the votes are secret in the Republican Conference. I plan to write each Republican senator and ask how he or she voted on the earmark ban. I will publish the results in this space and in my e-mailed column and will encourage others such as Newsmax, Town Hall and the Tea Party to send the answers to their readers. Those who voted for the ban will be able to bask in the credit. Those who have the courage to admit they did not will face the consequences. And those who lack the courage to reply will justifiably face the skepticism of their voters. Why, they will be asked, are we not permitted to know how you — whom we elected — voted?

Morris, a former adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of Outrage, Fleeced and Catastrophe. To get all of his and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by e-mail or to order a signed copy of their latest book, 2010: Take Back America — A Battle Plan, go to dickmorris.com