Is America losing its taste for bacon?
When it comes to the congressional variety, members of the powerful appropriations committees are finding that holding the nation’s purse strings - and the power the positions afford in doling out pork-barrel projects back home - are no guarantee these days for re-election.
Six of the 13 members of the Senate Appropriations Committee up for re-election this year have announced they’ll retire or have lost a primary challenge. A seventh, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, is trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak in the polls heading to Tuesday’s primary. The committee has 30 total members.
In the House, powerful Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, announced this month that he won’t seek a 22nd term in office.
Even Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, an appropriations committee veteran who hails from one of the most pork-barrel-friendly states - West Virginia - couldn’t keep his job, losing last week in his state’s Democratic primary.
A public backlash against pet projects, often called earmarks, wasn’t the sole reason that forced these lawmakers from office. But unlike past election seasons, sitting on an appropriations committee isn’t enough to save a lawmaker’s political skin.
“Being on the appropriations committees isn’t the advantage it was in past election cycles, in part because there’s an anti-incumbent attitude,” said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report. “But it’s probably never the single reason an incumbent falls short.”
The anti-earmark wave seems to have has caught many lawmakers off guard on Capitol Hill, where membership to the House and Senate “approps” committees is still considered a desirable and powerful privilege.
“They expect to be thanked” for pet projects back home, said Mike Connolly, a spokesman with the Club for Growth, a conservative group that pushes for limited government spending. But “the American people are figuring out that, while they’re getting a little bit for their state, they also know that they’re paying for the stuff in the other 49 [states], too.”
For Mr. Mollohan, earmarks were only a part of his campaign woes. His primary challenger, state Sen. Mike Oliverio, criticized the incumbent for not coming out more strongly against the Democrats’ “cap-and-trade” energy bill - an unpopular proposal in coal-rich West Virginia.
Yet Mr. Mollohan’s campaign also was weighed down by accusations that he personally benefited from some of his earmarks. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) accused him of being one of the most corrupt members of Congress.
“In this political climate, when voters are going through tough times, especially in West Virginia, the charge from Mollohan’s opponent that he has gotten rich from Congress and his family has gotten rich from earmarks really resonated,” Mr. Wasserman said.
At a campaign stop Saturday in Chester, Pa., Mr. Specter promised that he would try to get funds to help restore a local swimming pool, according to the Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times. Meanwhile, former Congressman Pat Toomey, who is running for Mr. Specter’s seat as a Republican, has vowed not to request any earmarks if elected.
Polls suggest that Mr. Toomey, a former head of the Club for Growth, would easily beat Mr. Specter in the general election and would have a narrow advantage over Mr. Sestak.
At a candidates forum Monday in Kentucky, the top two Republicans vying for the open U.S. Senate seat expressed divergent views on earmarks. According to a Lexington Herald-Leader report, candidate Trey Grayson called for reining in federal spending but not eliminating earmarks, while his rival, Rand Paul, said Congress needs “an ironclad budget amendment” to bar lawmakers from tagging funds for projects and programs.
Mr. Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a 2008 Republican presidential candidate, has a comfortable lead in the polls heading into Tuesday’s primary.
In Utah, Republican Party voters were so perturbed with Sen. Robert F. Bennett’s performance that they effectively booted him from office this month by denying him a spot on the party’s primary ballot.
Mr. Bennett, like many other incumbents, faced a general anti-Washington backlash. His support of the Wall Street bailout in 2008 disenfranchised him from many party faithful. But many Utah Republicans, particularly those in the conservative “tea party” movement, singled out his pursuit of earmarks for Utah as another reason why he should go.
Club for Growth spent $180,000 in Utah in helping defeat Mr. Bennett, including running a television ad against the incumbent that mentioned his support for one of the most infamous earmarks ever: Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.”
But incumbency isn’t necessarily a recipe for re-election disaster, some say.
“[Sens.] Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn aren’t in trouble - it’s not all incumbents,” said Mr. Connolly, referring to the South Carolina and Oklahoma Republicans who have sworn off earmarks. “It’s not just - quote unquote - [anti]-Washington. It’s [a movement against] the people who grease this giant spending machine and keep it going.”