In the wake of a midterm election that saw the GOP score a resounding victory on the backs of promises to cut spending and increase accountability in the capital, Senate Republicans on Tuesday instituted a self-imposed ban on earmarks.
Earmarks are pet projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills to direct money to their home states – some for perfectly good causes, some not so much – but they have come to symbolize a culture in Washington full of special favors and runaway expenditures. Cue the GOP ban on earmarks, a move sure to score political points for the party. .
But will it really do any good?
For starters, it's a voluntary, non-binding moratorium, so any lawmaker could decide to break the pledge at any time.
In addition, scrapping earmarks will hardly balance the books on Capitol Hill. While the $16 billion that Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2010 might sound like a lot of money, it is only a tiny fraction of the total federal budget. As Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine pointed out earlier this week, earmarks account for "less than one percent of overall federal expenditures."
Moreover, some of the same GOP senators who pledged to support the ban said that they couldn't promise to stick to it.
"I have consistently voted for the elimination of earmarks in the past and will support the earmark moratorium resolution today," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, said in a statement on Tuesday. "However, there are times when crises arise, or issues come forth of such importance to Georgia, such as critical support to the port of Savannah, and the nation that I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve funding."
That was the same approach voiced by another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"I respect the spirit in which this moratorium has been agreed to and hope it will lead to a better use of taxpayer dollars," Graham said on Tuesday. "However, I maintain the right to seek funding to protect our national security or where the jobs and economy of South Carolina are at risk. If the Obama Administration and their bureaucrats in the federal agencies take action against the best interests of South Carolina, I will take swift action to correct their wrongs."
Such a "yes, but" attitude speaks to some of the GOP old guard's chief concerns about an earmark ban in the first place. The plan was the brainchild of Graham's fellow senator from South Carolina, Jim DeMint, a champion of Tea-Party aligned members. But it initially met with stern opposition from party leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY.
McConnell warned that an earmark moratorium would "save no money" and give the executive branch "a blank check" to decide how to spend federal money.
"Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do," he told the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington earlier this month.
"You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money," he argued.