Bowing to political pressure from conservatives in his party and to voter anxiety over the federal budget, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday reversed course and supported a temporary ban on earmarks in order to show he is serious about cutting federal spending.
The decision was viewed as a victory for Sens. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican; Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican; and eight other conservatives - including six incoming freshman - who last week called on their colleagues in an open letter to adopt the ban.
“What I’ve concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example,” Mr. McConnell said shortly after the opening of a lame-duck session that could spill into December. “Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.”
Republicans suggested the political spotlight now will shift onto President Obama, who has signaled a willingness to work with Republicans against earmarking, but has been fuzzy about whether he will use the full force of the White House to prevent the practice and take on veteran members of the Democratic Party.
“It’s time for Congress to stop focusing on parochial pet projects, and instead focus on cutting spending, devolving power and decisions back to states, and working on national priorities, like entitlement and tax reform,” Mr. DeMint said after the announcement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had a different take.
“It is up to each senator whether or not they will support congressionally directed funding to their state,” said Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley. “From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada. He will always fight to ensure the state’s needs are met.”
Though earmarks account for less than 1 percent of federal spending, they have become the poster child for the worst abuses of Congress, with some former members serving prison time for trading earmarks for gifts.
Mr. McConnell’s stance represents a remarkable change of heart for the Kentucky Republican. Earlier this year, he voted for and then against two different proposals aimed at ending the practice and has previously touted his ability to bring home the bacon.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog, said that in the last three fiscal years, Mr. McConnell has pulled nearly $460 million of taxpayer-supported pork-barrel projects back to his state.
“I looked out the window to see if I could see his finger in the air, checking the political wind,” Mr. Ellis said jokingly on Monday. Then he added, “I think Sen. McConnell bowed to the political realities.”
“But we can’t stop with earmarks, as they represent only part of the problem. In the days and weeks to come, I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children,” Mr. Obama said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, ushered a similar earmark ban through the House Republican caucus earlier this year and leaders have rolled out plans to extend it into the next Congress, where he is likely to be elevated to speaker.
“An earmark moratorium shows that elected officials are serious about restoring trust between the American people and those elected to represent them,” he said.