Politics & Policy

Democrats Hold Out for Pork

Mitch McConnell did an about-face to stop earmarks. When will Senate Dems follow suit?

After initially resisting — in a way that was slightly disconcerting given the tide and tenor of the midterm elections — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) eventually conceded that “the people have spoken” and agreed to support a voluntary two-year moratorium on earmarks among GOP senators. Shortly thereafter, House Republicans unanimously renewed their own version of an earmark ban. The size of the GOP majority means earmarks are effectively forbidden in the House for the 112th Congress.

Senate Democrats, however, still clinging to a majority, have not hurried to follow suit. Some of their earmark-loving colleagues, like Patty “Queen of Pork” Murray (D., Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), were reelected this year. But, just like McConnell, several Senate Democrats are finally realizing that defending pork is a bad idea. The pro-earmark resistance is starting to crack.

Even President Obama recently embraced severe limitations on pork spending (if not a full ban). “When it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing [earmarks] would have an important impact,” Obama told reporters during his recent trip to Asia. Obama’s position leaves Democratic pork-barrelers in the Senateincreasingly isolated in the fight over earmarks.

Many are holding firm. Reid has been particularly defiant, saying he does not intend to forgo his “constitutional obligation” to “[bring] stuff back to Nevada.” He has called the debate over earmarks a “tremendous step backwards” and implied that a moratorium would simply transfer spending power from Congress to the White House — a line echoed by pro-pork Republicans like Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.).

But some Democrats are joining the fight against pork. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) recently suggested that her party’s opposition to an earmark moratorium was an instance of Democrats being out of touch with the public. While she admitted that “there hasn’t been a huge appetite” among Democrats to stop the pork, she said it was “only a matter of time” before the Senate bans earmarking. “The truth is that earmarks are simply not a good way to spend tax dollars — I believe that funding should always be based on merit, not politics,” McCaskill said in a statement.

McCaskill and fellow Democrat Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) recently teamed up with Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and John McCain (Ariz.) to introduce an earmark amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act that would impose a three-year ban on pork spending. Unlike the Senate GOP’s moratorium, this ban would be binding.

Coburn, who is spearheading the effort, has been criticized for stalling passage of the food-safety bill, but remains adamant that “a transparent vote on earmarks” should take place. At the very least, senators should be forced to go on the record. Coburn says Democrats ought to realize that defending earmarks is a losing position. He expects that several will break with Reid to support his amendment, which is likely to see a vote when Congress returns after the Thanksgiving break. “I’ll think you’ll see ten, twelve Democrats, maybe even more than that,” Coburn tells NRO.

Indeed, some Democrats have indicated they might be willing to support a Senate-wide earmark moratorium. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said he’d “take a look at it.” Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) said he’s “open to change.” Leslie Page, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, says the fact that Senate Democrats are even hinting at an earmark ban represents a dramatic change.

Page says she is “cautiously optimistic” in light of recent efforts on Capitol Hill to do away with wasteful pork spending, but says the Senate is a “tougher nut to crack” given the Democratic majority. “I don’t necessarily feel that this crop of Democrats gets it,” she says. “Let’s face it, half of the Republicans didn’t really get it.”

“It” being the prevailing conviction that voters are fed up with the way government operates — particularly earmarking, which is a notorious embodiment of wasteful government favoritism and cynical tit-for-tat. A new Rasmussen poll finds that 48 percent of likely voters favor a ban on earmarks, with 36 percent opposed and 15 percent unsure. House Republicans get it (and House Democrats don’t have a say). Senate Republicans, however reluctantly, appear to get it. Even President Obama gets it (sort of). Now it’s up to Senate Democrats to prove they get it.

Better late than never.

— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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