Much Ado About Earmarks
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
By Christopher Haight
Earmark spending, the direct appropriation of federal funds to a specified recipient, is paradoxically one of the most beloved and abhorred traditions in American politics. After all, one legislator's definition of pork barrel spending is another's much-needed job-saving investment - opposing views shared just as often among constituents as well.
The results of the 2010 midterm elections coupled with a renewed national conversation on deficit reduction brought new prominence to attacks on earmarks. With a new majority in the House of Representatives and a enlarged minority in the Senate, Republicans have committed themselves to eliminating earmarks as a source of federal funds. The G.O.P. caucus in the House voted to continue their collective ban on earmark requests and after a confluence of various pressures, Republican counterparts in the Senate soon followed suit. However, the political arithmetic isn't quite that simple.
Any piece of legislation, including the annual appropriations bills, requires passage by the House and Senate, and the President's signature. In the upcoming 112th Congress, Republicans will control only one-third of those necessary components. Republicans in the Senate remain outnumbered by Democrats by 53 to 47 - meaning not only will they not control the various Committees, including Budget and Appropriations, they do not have the votes to impost an earmark moratorium nor will they be able to override a President's veto (which requires two-thirds vote to succeed). Sure enough, on November 30, the Senate rejected the proposed ban on earmarks 56 to 39.
Furthermore, it's not entirely clear Republicans themselves will stand firm with their party's anti-earmark position. The reject ban that failed November 30 included eight Republican Senators voting against the party line. In the previous Congress, House Republicans while in the minority voted to impose an earmark ban on the caucus - only to have Rep. Don Young request millions for his state of Alaska, where one-third of the economy can be traced to federal expenditures. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who scored a surprising write-in bid for a third term even campaigned on her ability to bring home the money.
So where does this leave earmark funding? Unfortunately, still in a gray zone of ambiguity. If President Obama endorses an earmark ban and threatens a veto of any bills with earmarks, that would strengthen the hand of the House in negotiating with the Senate on final appropriations bills. If Obama remains noncommittal or against the earmark ban, earmark-seekers may have hope yet - albeit their requests will now best be channeled through Senators who have defended and continue to support use of earmarks.
As it currently stands, all of the talk about moratoriums on earmarks remains just that - talk. Refusing to engage in the practice does not actually save the government money, but rather provides more funding for the executive branch to award through various spending programs - thereby transforming a crusade against earmarks into a potential windfall for grants.