The Tea Party’s influence on the direction of Senate Republicans in the 112th Congress is about to be put to the test. Grass-roots activism helped swell the ranks of the chamber’s fiscal hawks with several newly elected members who are fired up about banning earmarks. When the Republican conference meets Tuesday to consider South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s resolution that would end the practice for its members, the outcome will demonstrate whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or Mr. DeMint and the Tea Party have captured the heart and soul of the Senate GOP.
Mr. McConnell defends earmarks by claiming that the real issue is discretion. “You can eliminate every congressional earmark, and you would save no money,” he told the Heritage Foundation. “We decide how much we’re going to spend either when we pass a budget or in the case of this past year when we don’t pass a budget, we produce a top-line for the discretionary spending. That top-line determines what gets spent.” In other words, taking away the ability of individual members to direct money into their districts would be to hand President Obama a blank check to decide where to spend that cash.
This sounds plausible, but the reality is that eliminating earmarks would indeed save money - about $16.5 billion in 2010, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The key is that Congress must exercise discipline and not merely appropriate the earmark money to other projects. Because Congress controls the purse strings, it can cut its spending by the same amount contained in the earmarks. It’s that simple.
Mr. McConnell refers to the budget and its top-line spending parameters as if they had the force of law. The budget resolution merely establishes procedures for considering spending bills and places upper limits that are difficult but neither impossible nor illegal to exceed. The upper limits are not mandates. Congress is free to spend well under those top lines if it so chooses.
If Congress decides not to finance local-interest projects, that decision cedes no additional authority to the president. Congress controls the purse strings. It can limit the executive’s spending ability in any way it chooses.
An earmark ban is as much about ethics reform as deficit reduction. The practice of trading earmarks effectively invites campaign contributions linked to the earmarks. Pretty soon it’s tough to tell which came first: the donation or the appropriation. Even the smallest of local earmarks can be so valuable to an individual member that it can be used to buy his vote for much larger bills. Obamacare and other massive measures would not have passed without special-interest provisions such as the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase and similar bridges to nowhere.
For a reinvigorated Republican Party to continue earmark spending they would have to be as tone deaf as the Obama-Pelosi-Reid team. Voters expect Washington to change its ways. The best way for senators of all parties to show they’ve heard the message is to retire the earmark perk once and for all.