- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Republicans donned their tool belts this week and engaged in the hard work of political image repair. Their labor focused on fiscal restraint and earmark disclosure, issues on which the Republican Party used to hold a solid advantage, but has lost ground during the last several years.

Coordinating closely with the White House over the past two weeks, House Republicans restored an important procedure making earmarks more transparent and gave the president their backing to sustain vetoes over spending. The project demonstrates that the party is learning how to operate effectively in the minority and rebuilding trust lost with voters. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio likes to remind his colleagues to quit obsessing about “taking back” the majority — instead they should “earn it.” Refurbishing trust by promoting fiscal restraint and transparent procedures is a way to do just that.

Republicans won a major victory this week in the House on earmarks — those infamous cases of legislatively mandated spending. The “bridge to nowhere” became the most notorious illustration, but plenty of other examples came over the transom on the Republican watch.

Earmarking grew rapidly over the last decade of Republican majorities, a practice that left many Americans believing the party was only an echo of the big-spending Democrats. Underscoring this point, Republicans in the mid-1990s held between 13- and 28-point advantages on the issue of which party Americans trusted more on spending. But by 2005, Democrats closed the gap and were actually the party Americans trusted more on spending by a 12-point margin. By January 2007, the Democrats’ advantage swelled to 15 points.

Earmarks accounted for part of this shift and are an ingredient of general voter grievances with Congress. For those who don’t benefit directly — which is most Americans — earmarks smack of special interest pork. That’s because members of Congress and their constituents believe pork is anything not spent in their districts. Earmarks represent only a very small slice of overall federal spending. But symbolically they are a big part of the problem, an icon of inside deals and special-interest politics. Individually, they may not break the bank, but it’s the process — often closed and non-transparent — that really annoys people.

So, picking a fight over earmarks represents a reputational shot in the arm for beleaguered Republicans. By resetting the political odometer, Democrats are recast again as the party more interested in pushing the spending throttle to full-speed ahead.

If ESPN’s “SportsCenter” had a highlight reel of congressional news coverage, the recent earmark fight would be a top-of-the-hour feature. So let’s go to the videotape. Last year, Republicans adopted new rules on earmarks, requiring disclosure and developing procedures to scuttle legislation that did not provide transparency for these congressional add-ons. This year, Democrats said they would strengthen the rules, but, through parliamentary gimmicks I outlined two weeks ago, actually weakened members’ ability to remove earmarks. Then the Democrats went even further, announcing they would not even include any earmarks until the legislation was in a House-Senate conference committee. On its face, this tactic is a violation of House rules that prohibit lawmakers from simply “airdropping” new items into conference committees (conference committees are intended to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of legislation, not introduce completely new proposals).

The Democrats’ approach was politically arrogant and procedurally abusive, and the Republicans pounced. Capitalizing on what looked like a bait-and-switch tactic, Republicans tied the House in procedural knots last week until the Democrats relented.

Earlier this week, Democrats agreed to restore the Republican earmark rule adopted last year, at least as it applies to appropriations bills. President Bush met with Republican leaders on a couple of occasions to highlight their resolve to push for earmark transparency and uphold White House vetoes over excessive spending. “We are coordinating with House Republicans on a daily basis,” a senior White House aide told me. Yesterday, a group of House Republicans met with Mr. Bush, presenting him with a letter signed by 147 lawmakers (one more that needed to sustain any veto) pledging to stand with the White House in the fight to curb spending.

Stripping off the effects of negligence on fiscal restraint is hard work. Republicans are reconstructing an essential mantle of trust through close coordination with the White House and a little rhetorical elbow grease. Not enough to “earn” back the majority yet, but certainly a handsome down payment.

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