Anti-earmark amendment cedes lawmakers' powers to White House

Even if the full Senate doesn't pass an earmark moratorium, a refusal by lawmakers to direct funding to their congressional districts will likely give more spending-priority power to the Obama administration and won't do much to chip away at the federal deficit.

House and Senate Republicans voted behind closed doors during the first week of the lame-duck session in support of two-year bans on earmarks, with Republicans urging Democrats to follow their example.

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When lawmakers return from the weeklong Thanksgiving recess, the Senate is expected to vote on, but is unlikely to pass, an amendment to the food safety bill that would implement a three-year earmark ban covering spending by both parties that could provide Republicans with a clearer avenue to block Democrats' spending projects. For approval, the amendment needs a supermajority of 67 senators.

Yet while House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle may be more amenable to an outright ban, some Republican and Democratic senators have said that at the very least they would seek money for their states for emergencies like storm damage and flooding.

Still, savvy appropriators are likely to find ways to direct funding to their pet projects by either appealing to the administration or inserting carefully worded provisions into legislation that would likely result in money being steered toward their interests.

Right now only two Democrats, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), support the earmark amendment authored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), along with some, but not all, Republicans.

"This is kind of a work in progress," McCaskill told The Hill, saying the debate was lively during the Democrats' caucus meetings.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to allow a vote on Coburn's amendment while being clear that he intends to look after his home state's needs, putting him at odds with President Obama, who supports a ban.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) changed his stance recently by agreeing to sign onto the ban while continuing his argument that eliminating so-called pork-barrel spending won't make a dent in the budget deficit, is a distraction from larger spending issues that need tackling and provides the Obama administration a "blank check" to spend money however it wants.

In fiscal 2010, lawmakers directed 9,000 earmarks worth $15.9 billion to their districts, less than 1 percent of the more than $3 trillion federal budget, down from a high of $29 billion in 2006.

In terms of actually cutting into the nearly $1.4 trillion federal deficit, an earmark ban is largely symbolic but is serving to deliver the deficit-reducing, spending-cut message that was central to most campaigns.

Earmarks don't add money to the annual federal budget, they simply direct money from the pot that is already being spent.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski also staunchly opposed the moratorium.

"We recognize that we need to stop out-of-control spending, but let's make sure that the action we take actually translates into spending and deficit reduction rather than just messaging," she said. She vowed to fight for Alaska's "fair share" of its appropriations money and called the moratorium a "shell game that moves the money and the decisionmaking responsibility from Congress to the bureaucracy."

Earmarks have remained popular with many lawmakers who consider it part of their jobs to bring home money for projects in their districts or states.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is a vocal opponent of the practice and continues to call for an overhaul of how federal money is doled out through what has become a deeply ingrained process by lawmakers who "love to cut ribbons."

Flake argued that some earmarks "bleed money away from the real priorities" in addition to being distributed first to Appropriations panel leaders and members.

"We have to remember this notion that we have an equitable process now to distribute these monies," he said. "It's a spoils system over here now, and we may not like how the administration sets its priorities, but when it comes over here, depending on the bill, 70 percent of the dollar value goes to about 15 to 20 percent of the body here and that's not right, either."

He suggested restructuring bills to focus on a collaborative list of priorities that would actually strengthen Congress's hand and be funded "in a logical, orderly fashion rather than ad hoc so whoever is a ranking member or a committee member might get their project funded but nobody else."

While outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said last week that it's the Republicans' prerogative to ban earmarks, he was quick to remind them that it was Democrats who suspended earmarks for a year when his party took control of the House in 2006 — as Obey put it, in response to runaway spending by Republicans in prior legislative sessions.

He argued that banning earmarks will surrender power to the executive branch and force some spending decisions behind closed doors.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said he also had reservations about the ban.

"We should not mislead Americans by saying that an earmark ban will do much to reduce the federal debt. 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. "This moratorium will help put the spotlight on executive-branch earmarks, which in 2008 spent more than congressional earmarks."

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.), the Republican co-chairman of the White House fiscal commission, has dismissed a new moratorium on earmarks as no more consequential than a “sparrow belch.”

Meanwhile, Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of the commission, wants to see more focus on earmarks embedded in tax bills.

“There are $1.1 trillion in annual earmarks in the tax bills and you give them a free ride,” he said.