Through a change to House rules, Democrats in that chamber of Congress have banned earmarks that deliver funds and contracts to private, for-profit enterprises. Senate Democrats probably will ignore their colleagues’ new policy, but House Republicans have just one-upped it, voting amongst themselves to forgo all earmarks, whether to businesses, local and state governments, or nonprofit institutions. They will do so unilaterally, giving up their earmarks while challenging Democrats to do the same.
This is one sign that the GOP is getting serious about rededicating itself to the cause of fiscal restraint, and the politics are pretty good: Either the Democrats will be shamed into going along, or the Republicans will have a vital edge on a very popular issue.
And it’s worth noting which Republicans voted for the moratorium. “What’s surprising isn’t the holdouts,” said one congressional aide just before the vote. “What’s surprising is who isn’t holding out. The appropriators are usually hesitant about giving these up. But the ones you might expect to hold out, like Rep. Jerry Lewis, are on board.” Lewis is the California Republican who served as chairman of the omnipotent Appropriations Committee before the GOP lost its majority in the House. He remains the ranking Republican on the committee and on all eleven of its subcommittees. In other words, he’s a hardcore appropriator with the PIN for the national ATM card. The fact that he voted the right way, even on a largely symbolic measure such as earmarks, is a good omen for budget hawks.
Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona has been a reliable crusader against earmarks, and he’s pleased that the moratorium will give Republicans a chance to rebuild their reputation for fiscal discipline. “I’ve wanted for years just to challenge Democratic earmarks,” he says, “but I couldn’t in good conscience do that when we had 60 percent of the earmarks, and then 40 percent [after the GOP lost its majority].” And he likes the timing, too: “The Democrats are going to be under tremendous pressure to follow suit and ban all earmarks. Right now, the Democrats are in a particular pickle because of health care, where they need every vote. It’s going to be very difficult for them to make a change this unpopular with their caucus and keep the votes they need for health care.”
It’s not surprising that the Democrats targeted earmarks for businesses — under Obama and Pelosi, the party has become ever more brazen in its contempt for private enterprise, whether it’s insurance companies or defense contractors. And like the president’s anti-waste initiative, the Democrats’ anti-earmarks pledge targeted a tiny slice of the pie: Earmarks to for-profits amount to only about 10 percent of such spending. For the Democrats, it’s not the spending, but the profit: The private-sector earmark and its Siamese twin, the no-bid contract, are hate totems for the Left.
It is easy to find instances of business-related earmark abuse, but the nonprofit sector is in many ways a worse offender. That’s because the for-profit sector very often is obliged to provide some useful good or service in exchange for federal funds. There are probably better ways to get that done than no-bids and earmarks, but consider some of the things that have been funded by these measures: In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, 16 contractors received just under $30 million in funds in the last defense-appropriations bill, for projects including the development of new rifle optics and high-tech ceramic body armor. Better rifle scopes and better body armor are something that our guys in Iraq and Afghanistan might be interested in.
You know what they’re probably not interested in? The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. That vanity project for the scandal-ridden Harlem boss was funded in part by a $2 million earmark secured by none other than Charles B. Rangel, who was at the time also leaning on corporate donors with business before his powerful Ways and Means Committee. Under the Democrats’ rule, those next-generation rifle scopes and body armor will be excluded from earmarks funding, but non-profit projects such as Goodtime Charlie’s monument to himself will remain fully eligible for targeted infusions of taxpayer schmundo. So will such urgent national priorities as pig-odor research projects in Iowa. That’s Nancy Pelosi’s version of clean government.
“If taking care of the for-profits took care of the so-called corrupting earmarks, that would be one thing,” Flake says. “But we have a lot of what are essentially for-profits masquerading as non-profits.” He singles out Concurrent Technologies: “Its executives make $500,000 a year and max out their political contributions. They’re just one example. We have a lot of earmark consortiums and earmark incubators that are nonprofits that distribute to for-profits. It’s more complicated than the Democrats think.”
It’s true that earmarks, like foreign aid and food stamps, carry a charge beyond their real weight: They’re an itty-bitty piece of a federal budget dominated by entitlements, defense spending, and interest on the debt. But if we’ve learned anything from the health-care debate, it’s that piecemeal reform often is preferable to game-changing, revolutionary reform. Sen. Jim DeMint is pushing an identical measure for Senate Republicans, though Flake acknowledges that he has “a steeper hill” to climb on the issue.
The House Republicans have played this one well, and the Democrats will have to either get with the program or get used to being the Party of Earmarks.
– Kevin Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.