Voters give pork pushers the chop

Voters give pork pushers the chop

The landscape for earmarkers in Congress has changed dramatically this election cycle.

Appropriators from both parties have become the hunted, losing primary races to challengers more hawkish about reforming the provisions lawmakers insert in spending bills to steer money to specific projects in their districts or states.


Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) was derisively dubbed “Earmark Queen” by GOP gubernatorial primary winner Gov. Rick Perry’s supporters. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was ousted last weekend by two earmark hawks. And Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, lost to a conservative Democrat who questioned the propriety and impact of Mollohan’s earmarks.

“There are still a few Republicans who don’t get it, but voters have caught on that earmarks lead to wasteful spending and debt,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a staunch earmark opponent. “People used to think that ‘bringing home the bacon’ would ensure reelection, but not anymore. Americans have seen how earmarks are used to bribe members into voting for bailouts, takeovers and huge spending bills.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) could be the next appropriator to go. His opponent in next week’s primary, Rep. Joe Sestak (D), has called for replacing the earmark process, dominated by senior appropriators, with a competitive grant process overseen by a new commission. The debate over earmark reform will only intensify in the general election, with the GOP candidate likely to be former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey.

“Big spenders are dropping like flies,” a senior Republican aide said.

It is clear that the anti-earmark movement has many hurdles to clear, but it has made progress over the last couple of years.

During the last election cycle, senators rejected an earmark moratorium proposed by DeMint. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Biden says he'd meet with Trump 'if he asked' Biden-Harris ticket the first in US history to surpass 80 million votes MORE (D-Ill.) backed it, but it was soundly rejected, 29-71.

Lawmakers who have railed against earmarks for years, such as Sens. DeMint, Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnDemocrats step up hardball tactics in Supreme Court fight COVID response shows a way forward on private gun sale checks Inspector general independence must be a bipartisan priority in 2020 MORE (R-Okla.), McCain and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), have found new support for their push as deficits have risen and the public has become more wary of spending.

Coburn has introduced a bill that would require Congress to set up an earmark database that the public could use to find how many earmarks each lawmaker requested and received. The bill’s co-sponsors are seven Republicans and six Democrats, including several up for reelection this year: Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBiden plays it cool as Trump refuses to concede The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonOssoff, Warnock to knock on doors in runoff campaigns Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Democrats press Facebook, Twitter on misinformation efforts ahead of Georgia runoff MORE (R-Ga.).

Both House Republican and Democratic leaders have sought to protect their members in an election year by instituting new, unprecedented earmark restrictions. In March, House Republicans said they will go without all earmarks for one year, while House Democrats said they’re permanently banning earmarks for for-profit companies.

Senate Democrats and Republicans have not followed suit.

Top appropriators have pushed back against earmark criticism by pointing to their efforts in recent years to make the practice more transparent so that the public knows where the money is going.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, respectively, last year required lawmakers for the first time to post their earmark requests online. Democratic leaders have also pointed to a drop in the number and amount of earmarks since their party won control of Congress in 2006.

Official earmarks will account for about $11.1 billion of spending this year, making up a small portion of the federal government’s $1.4 trillion discretionary spending budget.

Inouye, who has been critical of the House Democratic earmark ban on for-profit companies, acknowledged the electorate’s unease with incumbent lawmakers this year, but doubts that their earmarking is to blame.

“I don’t know if it was because they were appropriators, but I don’t fault the people,” Inouye told The Hill. “That’s the democratic way.”

Inouye and other appropriators have pushed back against earmark critics, arguing that lawmakers shouldn’t abdicate every spending decision to the executive branch.


“As far as I’m concerned, I’m not a rubber stamp,” Inouye said. “The Constitution says very clearly that Congress has an important role in establishing the budget.”

The shakeup over earmarks isn’t likely to dissipate after the election.

Should Republicans win the House, the Speaker would likely be House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE (Ohio), who does not request earmarks.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE will play a major role in determining who will be the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee in 2011. The leading contenders are Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Bill Young (R-Fla.).

Lewis, a proponent of earmarks, called the House GOP ban “symbolic” during an interview on C-SPAN last month.

Lewis said the GOP moratorium “is symbolic about our commitment to reducing spending over time.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leadership on the House Appropriations Committee will look vastly different next year, with the retirement of Obey, the ouster of Mollohan and the death of former House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.).

The recent moves against earmarks are giving earmark hawks some hope, said Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats must turn around Utah police arrest man driving 130 mph claiming he was going to kill former Missouri senator McCaskill congratulates Hawley on birth of daughter MORE (D-Mo.).

“You’ve got to take the incremental steps,” she added, “because you’re not going to get everybody to give these up overnight.”

This story was updated at 12:44 PM