Friday, March 21, 2008

In recent weeks, Republicans in just about every corner of the federal government have been given opportunities to put some teeth into reforms aimed at curbing earmarked spending in the budget process. But instead of backing up their tough rhetoric with real action, they’ve proposed a series of half-measures, hoping to drag their feet on the issue long enough for it to go away. As a result, they’ve demonstrated to conservatives that they won’t straighten up and fly right.

The Senate’s March 13 rejection of a one-year moratorium on earmarks was only the latest chapter in an ongoing battle against pork-barrel spending. And if history is any indication, the outlook isn’t promising.

Republicans in the Bush administration, Senate and House each had a clear chance to prove that the days of rampant earmarking are over. Had they seized those opportunities, the political calculus on earmarks would have been changed forever. No longer would earmark proponents be able to claim complicity on both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately, the status quo won.

After the passage of a pork-laden omnibus appropriations bill in December, the conservative blogosphere was rife with rumors that President Bush would issue an executive order cancelling all earmarks in the “report language” accompanying the legislation (as opposed to the actual statutory text of the bill itself). That move would have negated some 90 percent of the more than 11,000 pork projects funded in the appropriations cycle.

Beyond that, it would have sent a clear and unmistakable message that the executive branch would no longer abide by the “wink and nod” culture that allows earmarks not even written into bills to be funded.

Rather than issuing that executive order, Mr. Bush and his advisers decided in late January to write one that would only apply to future report language earmarks. This means that every single pork project funded in 2008 appropriations bills would escape unscathed. Never fear, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, your “Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service” at the City College of New York will still get its $2 million from taxpayers.

Senate Republicans engaged in their own type of toothless earmark reform.

Rather than taking bold action to stop earmarks altogether, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, decided to create the most useless of reform efforts: a task force. He then compounded this error by naming one of the Senate’s most notorious porkers as a member of the working group, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

All told, Mr. Cochran received more pork in the 2007 appropriations process ($774 million) than anyone, including perennial earmark kings Sens. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, and Democratic Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Just as we wouldn’t take seriously any parenting panel that included Britney Spears among its members, we shouldn’t expect much from an earmark reform group with Thad Cochran involved.

For their part, House Republicans avoided an opportunity to strike a blow for taxpayers. When an opening appeared on the House Appropriations Committee, Republican leadership had a chance to appoint a reformer to the spot who would help fight earmarks. Having a true fiscal conservative on the committee would shake up the back-scratching culture of Congress’ “third party” the bipartisan flock of “appropriations cardinals” who feather their nests with tax dollars. But instead of shaking a few of these birds out of their trees, Republican leadership appointed moderate Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama to the slot.

Fiscal conservatives had united behind the candidacy of the premier anti-earmark crusader in the House, Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and for good reason. According to the National Taxpayers Union’s Annual Rating of Congress (based on every roll-call vote affecting fiscal policy), Mr. Flake has received “straight A” grades during his tenure in Congress and has been the House’s top-scoring “Taxpayer’s Best Friend” the last four years running. Mr. Bonner, meanwhile, has managed to earn underwhelming marks, including a C+ in 2006.

So, the cagey birds will remain perched atop the appropriations process for now, looking down their beaks at the conservative watchdogs that many GOP leaders seem to think will sit quietly and obediently. These actions amount to a patronizing pat on the head, but this dog will no longer be fooled. And everyone knows the kind of mayhem a rambunctious dog can cause.

Andrew Moylan is government affairs manager for the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union.

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