Senate Republicans Ban Earmarks; Will Democrats Follow?

VIDEO: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supports moratorium on
WATCH McConnell Caves to Tea Party on Earmarks

Senate Republicans today took their war against government spending to a new level, voting behind closed-doors to approve a moratorium on all congressional earmarks for two years.

The resolution, which is non-binding, is identical to the one approved by House Republicans in the current Congress and forbids Republicans from engaging in the practice of funnelling federal tax dollars to pet projects in their home states.

House Democrats have restricted earmarks for private contractors but not outlawed them entirely.

Only Senate Democrats have yet to decide on whether they will impose any limits on earmarks, although at least two members -- Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall -- have said they want their caucus to follow suit.

A moratorium on earmarks throughout Congress would be a significant development and departure from what has become a common, if controversial, practice in recent years.

Congress approved 9,499 earmarked projects in fiscal year 2010 that totaled $15.9 billion, according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of overall federal spending.

"While that's a small part of the budget, we've become so focused on pet projects that holding government accountable and being good stewards of the public dollar seem to be an afterthought," Udall said. "In fact, lawmakers are so afraid of losing earmarked funding that they're sometimes pressured into supporting a vicious cycle of increased spending."

Critics have long decried the earmarking process as a symbol of Washington spending gone awry, highlighting dozens of local projects that have received taxpayer dollars simply because of an influential congressman leveraged his seniority or traded for political favors.

"It's ludicrous to have the federal government street-scaping Rodeo Drive, or turtle tunnels down in Tallahassee," said Leslie Page of the anti-spending group Citizens Against Government Waste. "And, why are we spending $8 million on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the baseball museum? Why are we building parking lots in Montana?"

Earmark opponents also say they're the reason that more pressing issues such as the skyrocketing cost of government entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, have not received more congressional attention.

"A moratorium is a means to an end," Taxpayers for Common Sense spokesman Steve Ellis said. "While in place, the moratorium will help concentrate the mind of lawmakers and staff to come up with accountable, transparent, merit, competitive and formula systems to allocate federal funding."

The move by Republicans will also likely add pressure on President Obama, who has said he supports "cracking down on wasteful earmark spending, which we can't afford during these tough economic times."

But he has not called for eliminating the practice outright or threatened to veto bills that include earmarks.

President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued a report last week detailing ways to reduce the national debt by $4 trillion in the next 10 years, including an outright ban on all earmarks.

"Will he commit to vetoing bills with earmarks in them?" said Page. "Obama needs to get Democrats in line if he truly opposes earmarks."

Reid Stands by His Earmarks

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, has unabashedly defended earmarks, saying through a spokesman that he "makes no apologies."

"It is up to each senator whether or not they will support congressionally directed funding to their state," Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said. "From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada. He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met."

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had initially demurred on an earmark ban, had a change of heart Monday.

"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state," McConnell said, acknowledging his new position on the subject. "I don't apologize for them. But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."

McConnell had come under intense pressure to support a moratorium from a conservative intraparty faction led by Tea Party-favorite Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who first pushed the policy move.

"Just about every new Republican freshman is pushing for the earmark ban," DeMint said Sunday. " I think we'll win the vote because I think most of the Republicans in the Senate have gotten the very clear message from the American people that we need to stop wasteful spending."

Hanging over all of this is that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the next fiscal year.

If lawmakers ultimately vote to temporarily continue the status quo -- funding the government at last year's levels into the new year -- they won't be able to add on any new pork the way they could with a new funding bill.