Nov. 17, 2010 -- 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.
Only hours before McConnell changed his stance and decided to support DeMint's earmark ban, another old guard Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, took to the Senate floor to tout a bill he has introduced that would implement the recommendations outlined last fall by a group of government watchdogs. Inhofe's bill would establish a public database of earmarks and ban campaign contributions from earmark recipients. But that idea hasn't received the groundswell of support from the GOP that DeMint's proposal has.
It did, however, win the praise of one of those government watchdogs that was behind the initial recommendations – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
"CREW has long advocated that if the practice of earmarking continues, there must be real transparency and accountability in the process," CREW said in a blog post on their website. "Over the years, neither party's efforts at reforming the earmarking process has been completely successful. In this light, CREW applauds Sen. Inhofe for embracing a commonsense approach to end the abuse of earmarking."
"No matter how small a percentage of the budget, many Americans see earmarks as a symbol of self-serving politicians and believe their hard-earned tax dollars are being frittered away on wasteful projects," the statement said. "True or not, passing this legislation would help restore Americans' diminished confidence in Congress."
While one can question whether the GOP's self-imposed earmark ban will make a real difference or not, no one can question the party's attempt to take a stand on the pet projects. Democrats, though, are a different story.
Only two Senate Democrats – Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-CO – support a moratorium. McCaskill has pledged to partner with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to push for a full Senate vote on the ban.
"I think a lot of this is about getting people on record," McCaskill told reporters on Tuesday. "Some of it is just getting people to have to vote on it."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has shown no signs of pushing the Democrats to follow the GOP's lead.
"I believe, personally, we have a constitutional obligation, a responsibility, to do congressionally directed spending," Reid said on Tuesday. "I do not feel comfortable turning that over to the people downtown."
Reid said an earmark moratorium would not be reform.
McCaskill acknowledged that Democrats were unlikely to adopt the Republicans' moratorium.
"I don't think we'd be successful," she said. "There hasn't been a huge appetite yet on our side of the aisle to stop this process."
"They [Democrats] feel very strongly about having the prerogative of making funding decisions on an individual basis," she said. "It's a lot of power. And I think people are reluctant to give up the power to make a solitary, stand-alone decision on where federal money is going to be spent."