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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Budget Battles Go Without the Earmarks

From The New York Times:

The fact that Congress remains a spending disagreement or two away from shutting down the government no doubt strikes some as remarkable. But there is another extraordinary aspect to the fiscal clash unfolding on Capitol Hill: earmarks have disappeared from the budgetary landscape.

It is still sinking in for both those who have lavished money on hometown projects and those who have spent years opposing earmarks that the pork-barrel spending that has driven so many appropriations measures through the House and Senate is, at least for now, at an end.

Even Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who made battling earmarks a cornerstone of his Congressional career since his election in 1990, said he would not have predicted that Congress could kick the habit.

“Think of this fight we have had for 20 years,” Mr. Boehner said in a recent interview. “If somebody would have asked me, ‘Will you ever get there?’ I would have had my doubts.”

But through a confluence of events, Mr. Boehner and the rest of the anti-earmark crowd did get there; the impact of the decision by leaders of the House and the Senate to ban earmarks for at least the next two years is already being felt.

Lawmakers said the absence of earmarks . . . for a more freewheeling debate on the House floor during consideration of the Republican plan to slash $61 billion from this year’s budget since Democrats and Republicans were not caught up in protecting the special provisions they had worked so hard to tuck into the spending bill.

“This is a completely new experience, and a good one,” said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who had lost scores of attempts on the House floor to strip earmarks from spending bills.

While spending on earmarks is a tiny portion of the budget, critics like Mr. Flake and Mr. Boehner said they played an insidious role in pushing up federal spending through what is known in legislative terms as logrolling.

Top members of the Appropriations Committee might, for instance, grant a lawmaker’s request for a few million dollars for an important project back home. That lawmaker would then be obligated to support the entire multibillion-dollar bill despite possible reservations. Woe to the person who gets an earmark and then opposes the bill; chances for a future earmark would be somewhere between zero and none.

Logrolling was just one aspect of earmarks seized on by critics. The pursuit of such spending ended up in criminal charges in some cases as certain lawmakers and lobbyists crossed the line between arguing for an issue and conspiring to secure federal dollars. The burgeoning practice fueled an entire industry where lawmakers relied on lobbyists for campaign aid and lobbyists expected earmark help in return.

Given the hold that the push for earmarks had on both parties in Congress, it took powerful forces to lead to a ban. Mr. Boehner may have railed against them, but it took over-the-top examples like the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska to focus public attention on the practice.

At the same time, the two parties found themselves in a bidding war over who was tougher on earmarks.

The wall finally tumbled down this year when Mr. Boehner, installed as the new speaker, pushed a ban in the House and had the clout to make it stick.

In the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a rabid earmarker, finally took the cure. Then, under pressure from the White House, Senate Democrats agreed to a ban, though Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, did so grudgingly, arguing that it was the job of Congress to direct federal spending.

Whether prohibition will last is anyone’s guess. But with Congress now so focused on cutting spending, it is doubtful that the days of unbridled earmarking will return anytime soon.

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