Earmark Ban Exposes Rifts Within Both Parties
In leading his colleagues in a vote on Tuesday to ban the lawmaker-directed spending items known as earmarks, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and consummate Congressional appropriator, averted a divisive clash within his caucus over the question of joining the new House Republican majority in enacting an earmark “moratorium” for the next Congress.
Given how zealously Mr. McConnell has defended the constitutional prerogative of Congress to control the federal purse, his turnabout was also the surest sign yet that the rightward pressure of Tea Party groups, and an antispending sentiment among voters, have begun to influence the way Washington does business.
At the same time, the renewed push against earmarks highlighted a potential conflict between the calls to eliminate the spending items and demands by many Tea Party supporters for greater fidelity to the Constitution. It is the Constitution, after all, that put Congress in charge of deciding how to spend the taxpayers’ money. In pledging not to let individual lawmakers designate federal money for local purposes, the anti-earmark contingent is in effect ceding more power to the executive branch over how taxpayer dollars are spent, presumably not the outcome desired by the new crop of grass-roots conservatives.
Both supporters and skeptics of an earmark ban say that it would empower the executive branch, at least initially. While earmarks amount to a trickle in the government’s flood of red ink — slightly more than three-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending — most of that money would still be expended by federal agencies in the absence of earmarks but without specific directions from Congress.
Mr. McConnell, in a speech on Monday announcing his new view, strongly defended some of his own past spending items, singling out two projects that he said were extremely important to his home state, including an effort to clean up hazardous waste at a plant that produces enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.
Still, Mr. McConnell added, “there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending in Washington.”
Past earmarks that have drawn criticism have included money for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and for pig odor research.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, nonprofit group that has long fought earmarks, said the recent election results made a continued defense of earmarks politically untenable. “To say, ‘Hey, thanks for your votes, we’re going back to business as usual,’ that was really going to be damaging to their credibility,” Mr. Ellis said.
Other appropriators, like Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, expressed astonishment at Mr. McConnell’s shift, seeming to see it as a betrayal of the bipartisan fraternity that has long characterized the spending panel.