Politics & Policy

Will Democrats Rein in Earmarks?

The ball is in their court.

Democrats have been such consistent supporters of higher taxes and larger, more-intrusive government that fiscal conservatives view them with enormous suspicion today. However, the November elections showed that most voters feel Republicans have set a new standard of fiscal recklessness and that Democrats deserve a chance to prove they can do better.

#ad#The recent announcement by Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.V.) that they will pass an earmark-free continuing resolution to fund the federal government through September 30, 2007, is a good first step for Democrats if they are to follow through on their election promise to embrace fiscal discipline.

Earmarks were emblematic of the Republicans’ fiscal profligacy in the 109th Congress. Earmarks are parochial projects that are funded directly by Congress and bypass the normal competitive processes for winning funding through federal and state agencies. They are wasteful spending almost by definition. Their purpose is to substitute political judgment for professional judgment, resulting in real or perceived corruption as funds are steered directly to favored projects.

Many of these projects, such as the now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, have sparked voter outrage.  Earlier this year a McLaughlin & Associates poll found that 75 percent of Americans — a number that is the same for Democrats as well as Republicans — want Congress to reduce or eliminate earmarks.

Americans for Prosperity traveled over 10,000 miles this year to the sites of 50 particularly egregious earmarks, and found that taxpayers around the country were outraged by this wasteful spending. Obviously, Republicans largely ignored voter desires, and instead catered to special interests — larding over 12,000 earmarks into the 2006 appropriations bills.

Voters, meanwhile, gave Democrats a chance to do better. A poll conducted by the Club for Growth on the weekend before the election gauged voter attitudes on earmarks in key swing districts. The poll found that voters, by a more-than 2-to-1 margin, wanted Congress to reduce spending, even if that meant fewer projects coming home to congressional districts. The same poll found, by a 3-to-2 margin, that Republicans are now considered the party of big government and that Democrats are doing a better job of eliminating wasteful spending.

In the final GOP defeat of 2006, Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas — a member of the earmark-securing Appropriations Committee who called pork-barrel reform “insanity” on the House floor — lost in a run-off election in mid-December, despite an overwhelming cash advantage and 14 years of incumbency.

Democrats know what it took to win in November, and the Obey-Byrd announcement is an early indication that they may control their big-government impulses and govern accordingly.  The announcement of an earmark-free continuing resolution for fiscal 2007 means that Obey and Byrd have laid to rest the more than 10,000 earmarks that total around $17 billion. Fiscally conservative Republicans also deserve credit for this victory, particularly Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. These senators wisely prevented the policy and political disaster of a lame-duck rush to pass pork-stuffed appropriations bills prior to the congressional holiday break.

The Obey-Byrd statement promises a moratorium on earmarks until a new process is put in place. The effectiveness of that reform is now the key question for Democrats if they are to keep control of this issue. Sen. Byrd, known as the “Prince of Pork” for the prodigious amounts of taxpayer dollars he has diverted to parochial West Virginia over the years, is an unlikely proponent of reining in earmarks. If it turns out that Democrats were interested primarily in disposing of Republican earmarks, and that the 2008 budget process plays out without meaningful reform, Democrats will lose their advantage on fiscal responsibility.

Short of an outright ban, the best earmark reform would be a requirement that every earmark be embodied in a standalone piece of legislation to be considered on its own merits. Failing that, a reasonable template for reform would be the proposal advanced by Democrats Rahm Emmanuel (Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) during the House earmark debate this past fall.

Their proposal would ban any member of Congress, his or her spouse, or immediate family member from benefiting from an earmark. It would ban the awarding of earmarks to any entity that employs or is represented by a former employee of the earmark’s sponsor, or is represented by a lobbying firm that employs any close relative of the earmark’s sponsor. It would ban tax measures to benefit an individual, corporation, or entity. And it would prohibit the adding of earmarks to conference reports that did not appear in either chamber’s original language.

These reforms, unfortunately, are not expected to be included in the House rules when the 110th Congress convenes in January. Instead, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has promised to identify the sponsor of each earmark, which is essentially the same limited reform she criticized as inadequate when Republicans passed it earlier this year. The Obey-Byrd moratorium allows Pelosi the time to reconsider that decision and enact more substantial reform.

Voters are watching with interest.

– Phil Kerpen is policy director for Americans for Prosperity.

Phil Kerpen — Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment, a nationally syndicated columnist, chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and author of Democracy Denied.

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