Considering how badly things are going for Republicans right now, they could use a few good issues. So when Democrats give them one through their incredible arrogance in spending taxpayers’ money — the same kind of arrogance that hastened the undoing of the Republican Congress last year — one would expect the GOP to take full advantage of such a gift.
For the most part, they are failing to do so.
The U.S. Senate has finally gotten around to passing its fiscal 2008 appropriations bills, and they are positively stuffed with pork — “earmarked” projects such as hippie museums, ballet companies, and even monuments named after the members of Congress proposing them. The commerce, justice and science appropriations bill, which passed the Senate last week, contains 600 earmarks, which alone account for $458 million or more than half of the increase over last year.
Yet Republicans in the Senate have not united on this issue. A substantial number appear more concerned with keeping their place at the trough than with winning back the trust of the American people on the issue of government spending — a prerequisite for the GOP if it is to win any future elections.
Rep. Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.), the powerful chairman of House Ways and Means, inserted $2 million in the CJS bill for three college construction projects in Harlem bearing his own name. Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R., S.C.) attempt on Thursday to nix the projects received just 34 votes, as 16 Republicans defended Rangel’s self-adulation.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) tried to remove from the Defense-appropriations bill tens of millions in operational funds for the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., widely perceived as an unmitigated waste of taxpayers’ money. He received the support of only 23 Republicans, less than half the caucus, even though the Bush administration, the Justice Department and one of NDIC’s own former directors consider the center a total waste of the $500 million it has received over the last decade. It has survived as long as it has only because Rep. Jack Murtha (D., Pa.) views it as a jobs program for his district (this was the earmark over which Murtha threatened a Republican colleague in May).
Coburn has also been rebuffed this year in trying to defund a baseball stadium in Montana, a “peace garden” in North Dakota, and to direct money away from a “Wetland Center” in Louisiana and toward helping displaced victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Only 31 Republicans supported him on these three initiatives. His amendment last month to defund bicycle-path earmarks and use the money instead on bridge safety received only 18 Republican votes.
Only on the hippie museum — a $1 million earmark to commemorate Woodstock — did Republicans unite in defense of fiscal sanity. All Republicans present voted to strip out this waste of taxpayers’ money. Not only has the museum boondoggle (sponsored by New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer) been cancelled, but 42 Senate Democrats are now on the record voting to preserve it.
But this small victory is the exception that proves the rule. Coburn spoke to National Review Online on Thursday before filing an amendment to block earmarks until the Secretary of Health and Human Services certifies that all children have either public or private health insurance. “I expect to get 12 or 13 votes on it,” he said.
Coburn said that he understands earmarks are only a small part of the budget, and that their elimination does not even necessarily shrink government spending — under Senate rules, the money can only be redirected. But he also noted that Washington’s culture of irresponsible spending thrives on earmarks, and that members put extra money into bills to make room for them. “We’re not going to get smaller government until we get rid of earmarks,” he said.
Asked about the Senate GOP leadership’s role in the earmark debate, Coburn was charitable. “I’m trying to sell them on the idea that the only way to get our brand back is to start acting it,” he said. But the Republican leadership in the Senate has accumulated a disappointing mixed record. The Club for Growth castigated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in late September for watching majority Democrats pork-up four spending bills and then voting “for all of them without so much of a peep or whimper.” But this understates the case. McConnell has requested $391 million in earmarked funds for the next fiscal year, which is also an election year for him. That is more than twice the $180 million inserted by Murtha (D., Pa.), and $100 million more than the reputed King of Pork, Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.).
Few of McConnell’s requests are as egregious as those mentioned above — the easiest target is a $2 million horse manure research center at the University of Kentucky. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, McConnell also earmarked three university projects in the last eight years that have been subsequently named after himself or his wife, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
At a time when they could exploit a popular issue, Republicans instead continue to support egregious Democratic earmarks lest they lose their own pork. They are still working on the political model of the “District Mayors” theory pushed last cycle by House Speaker Dennis Hastert: By bringing home the bacon, members of Congress seek to extend their political lives indefinitely. A similar idea was employed in the re-election campaign of Sen. Conrad Burns (R., Mont.), who told Montanans repeatedly that with his seniority, he could continue to deliver federal projects for the state.
Burns is now a former senator, Hastert a former Speaker. Considering how well it worked for them in the election of 2006, Republicans might want to rethink their earmark strategy. Democrats are handing them the proverbial stick, but many Republicans are content using it to hit themselves across the face.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.