Politics & Policy

An Earmark-Reform Crescendo

No earmarks for a year? That's a great start.

The multi-year push for genuine pork-barrel earmark reform may be headed for success this week.

An amendment to the budget sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has been collecting some unlikely cosponsors over the past couple of days, including both Democratic presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The amendment would establish a bold loophole-free ban on earmarks for one year. After the election, the new president and congressional majority would face a choice of bringing back earmarks under some reformed process or extending the temporary ban. Either result would be a major improvement.

McCain fought the good fight against wasteful earmark spending nearly alone through the 1980s and 1990s. A pair of stalwart anti-pork warriors, senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), joined the fight in 2005, after which earmark reform began building momentum. Progress, initially, was slow. Even Coburn’s original amendment to stop funding for the infamous “bridge to nowhere” failed by an overwhelming 82 to 15 vote. But the 2006 election was a turning point.

After voters ousted the wasteful-spending Republican majority, the new Democratic majority responded to voter sentiment with some important reforms. Foremost, there is now a requirement that earmark-inclusive bills passed by Congress be accompanied by reports that list both the earmarks and the sponsors. The new rules do have some loopholes, but on the whole they are a significant upgrade.

The loophole-free moratorium embodied in the DeMint-McCain amendment would actually end earmarking for at least one year. The appropriators say the current earmark process is defensible since the earmarked projects have merit. But if this is true, why can’t these projects be approved through merit-based and formula-driven funding processes, with no appearance of impropriety? That many projects cannot survive such vetting is proof that the current earmarking process is broken.

Appropriators also have claimed that earmarks are a permanent and necessary feature of the republic. A historical analysis by Citizens Against Government Waste lays that claim bare. It is noted in the report that President James Monroe said federal funding should go “to great national works only, since if it were unlimited it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil.”

When both contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination signed on to the DeMint-McCain amendment this week, a new consensus position against earmarks was established. Millions of Americans have been participating in primaries, giving the presidential contenders in both parties a mantle of leadership that should mean more to rank-and-file senators than the pro-earmark positions of their nominal leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. Minority leader McConnell, in particular, as a sponsor of some earmarks that could be perceived as questionable, should stop fighting the public on this issue and instead lead the parade.

On the House side there are similar positive developments. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is said to be strongly considering a move forward with her own version of a full-year moratorium. Republican minority leader John Boehner — who has never requested or accepted an earmark, and has long supported ending the practice — has been pressuring the speaker on this, and would deserve a large portion of the credit if she decides to move forward.

Cynics have suggested that an earmark moratorium is a political freebie in 2008. They say appropriations bills are unlikely to be passed this year anyway, with Congress inclined to punt them into next year to be signed by a new president.

But more important than why politicians do the right thing is that they do the right thing. Not only is an earmark-free year an accomplishment in itself, it creates the opportunity for permanently ending earmarking, or for installing a merit-based review process that would eliminate the worst earmark abuses. It gives Congress time to address the loss of public trust and to eliminate real and perceived abuses. In effect, it dares the next Congress and administration to bring back pork-barrel earmarking under the watchful eyes of the public.

This already has been a good week for advocates of fiscal responsibility, and could be a truly historic turning point if Sen. DeMint and his allies prevail.


The Latest