- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2010

The anti-pork brigade in Congress is poised to receive massive reinforcements next year, with nearly every non-incumbent GOP Senate candidate and hordes of House hopefuls swearing off earmarks themselves or even ready to consider an outright ban for all lawmakers.

That potential influx means a showdown with old-guard lawmakers - of both parties - who consider earmarking a central congressional prerogative. It also could mean a reversal of fortunes for critics such as Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who has fought unsuccessfully to get his party to stop the practice.

“I will force a vote in the Senate GOP conference to ban earmarks next year,” said Mr. DeMint, who has endorsed candidates supporting a ban. “I believe this will pass, and Republicans will be unified against the wasteful and corrupt earmark system.”

House Republicans voted in March to impose a moratorium on earmarks for fiscal 2011 spending bills. All but a handful of their members have abided by it.

But no other party caucus in either the House or Senate has sworn off targeted spending requests that lawmakers use to deliver federal money for projects back home.

Democratic leaders argue that the solution is transparency, not elimination.

Promises to eliminate earmarks are likely to be the first major test of GOP unity after the midterm elections, regardless of whether Republicans win control of either chamber. The debate pits senior senators, who note that Congress was given the power of the purse, against a growing number of lawmakers who say earmarks have become a corrupting force.

Asked what his party will do next year about the issue, Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a vocal defender of earmarks, laughed and shook his head. “Have a lively discussion of the issue,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, voted for an earmark ban and against a similar proposal two days apart in March.

One vote was on a ban for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, while the other was a ban on earmarks in any year in which the government runs a deficit.

“Republican senators will be meeting with the new members before announcing any new plans for the next Congress,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said they want Republicans to continue their earmark moratorium, though they’ll likely face opposition from some of the party’s senior members on the House Appropriations Committee.

“That means that it becomes even more complicated, because there are going to be these old bulls - Jerry Lewis, Bill Young, Hal Rogers - that stand to clean up with their position on Appropriations,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, referring to veteran GOP congressmen from California, Florida and Kentucky, respectively.

But with Mr. Boehner never having sought earmarks, with Mr. Cantor having given up the practice a few years ago, and with the prospect of a 2011 class of “rabble-rousing freshmen,” Mr. Ellis said, “you’ve got a pretty combustible mix.”

Of the 27 non-incumbent Republican Senate candidates running this year, 23 have sworn off earmarks for themselves or have proposed a moratorium or outright ban. A number of them have even signed pledges to that effect.

Almost all competitive congressional races have candidates who oppose earmarks, and many of them are likely to unseat incumbents. Sen. Robert F. Bennett lost the Republican nomination in Utah to Mike Lee, and Rand Paul appears to be on track to win the seat from Kentucky being vacated by Sen. Jim Bunning, an earmarker.

In Kansas, Rep. Jerry Moran is favored to win the seat left open by Sen. Sam Brownback. Mr. Moran supports a moratorium, his spokeswoman said.

The GOP nominees for Republican-held seats in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire and Alaska also oppose earmarks.

Meanwhile, Republican candidates in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Indiana - where Republicans have a reasonable chance of winning Democrat-held seats - have signed an anti-pork pledge devised by Citizens Against Government Waste.

President Obama, who supported a ban on earmarks during his last year in the Senate, could see his old seat go to an earmark opponent, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, who became one of the first Republicans on the House spending committee to call for an overhaul of the practice several years ago.

Opponents of earmarks say Congresses of the future likely will have more lawmakers who want to end the practice.

“Whether the House Republicans take the majority or not, their conference is going to be more anti-earmark than it was the day before,” Mr. Ellis said.

That makes the Republican candidates who defend earmarks stand out all the more.

In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven, considered a shoo-in to win that state’s open Senate seat, said Congress must distinguish between deserving and undeserving projects. In two other races, Democrats are using earmarks against their GOP rivals.

Robin Carnahan, the Democratic nominee in Missouri, is attacking Rep. Roy Blunt, the Republican candidate, for refusing to swear off the practice. Mr. Blunt’s office did not return calls for comment, but he has defended the practice in the past.

In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic incumbent, has attacked Rep. John Boozman, the GOP nominee, for backing the House Republicans’ earmark moratorium this year. In a head-to-head debate in September, Mrs. Lincoln argued that earmarking is one way Arkansas can compete to win federal funding and that the process “is the great equalizer.”

She said Mr. Boozman’s adherence to the one-year moratorium left his congressional district without a voice for transportation projects.

Mr. Boozman, whose campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, stressed that the earmark moratorium is just for the current fiscal year and wouldn’t bind his hands in the Senate.

“This is just on the House Republican side. This does not apply to the Senate. The Senate Republicans have not decided to do this,” he said at a debate with Mrs. Lincoln last month.

Some earmark opponents worry that Republican leaders will persuade freshmen senators to reverse their positions. But Mr. DeMint, who endorsed or campaigned for many of the candidates, said he thinks they will back up their commitments to voters.

“Republican Senate candidates from around the nation, from Mark Kirk in Illinois to Marco Rubio in Florida, have campaigned to stop the earmark favor factory and I trust them to keep their word when they get here,” he said. “If Republicans fail to take a stand against earmarks next year, it will send a terrible message to Americans that our party hasn’t learned its lesson.”

Another option would be for Republicans to require more transparency in the process, although Democrats have made huge strides in the past four years by passing rules requiring lawmakers to publish all their special spending requests and to print the earmarks awarded along with each bill’s text. The rules also limit the types of earmark requests allowed.

Democrats have largely watched from the sidelines and have needled Republicans as they struggle with the issue, particularly after House Republicans dropped references to earmarks from their Pledge to America, a lengthy agenda released last month.

“I’m not surprised by that, because they quadrupled earmarks when they were in charge,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “We have halved earmarks and made them transparent and fully reportable by members when they request them.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a longtime earmark foe, said limiting the practice will not be enough.

“I’m all for transparency, but the reality is, they will always find ways around it. That’s what I’ve found,” he said.

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