Official Washington was surprised in April when a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that a plurality of Americans (39%) said the most important issue facing Congress was the proliferation of “earmarks,” or allotting federal dollars to specified projects.
Six months later, it’s apparent that most Republicans have ignored this finding. Quite a few high-profile Democratic challengers, however, have seized on the theme of fiscal responsibility to establish an ideological beachhead on a crucial domestic issue. Little wonder that a recent Newsweek poll found that Americans now trust Democrats to “do a better job handling federal spending and the deficit” over Republicans by the astounding margin of 52% to 29%.
“Our country right now is in a fiscal crisis,” Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy declared during a recent campaign debate in Pennsylvania. He accused his opponent, freshman Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R.-Pa.), of engaging in “reckless spending and irresponsible fiscal policies.” Most alarming was Fitzpatrick’s support of pork-barrel spending. To make the point, Murphy criticized the pork-laden $286 billion highway bill, although it contained $26 million for local projects. “Sometimes,” he concluded, “you have to make tough decisions.”
To Fitzpatrick, it was “truly shocking” that Murphy would “turn his back on important transportation projects for this district.” These projects, after all, are “important to the district” and were requested by local officials.
In a neighboring Pennsylvania district, the script was much the same. Incumbent Rep. Jim Gerlach (R.-Pa.) pledged, if re-elected, to secure more funding for a local commuter rail line, special education programs and a national veterans’ cemetery. His opponent, Lois Murphy, focused instead on national priorities, such as the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission, balancing the federal budget and achieving energy independence.
Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic candidate for an open House seat in Illinois, pledges on her Web site to “return to the path of balanced budgets” and warns her partisan colleagues that “Democrats must be willing to end their defense of every spending program, regardless of its effectiveness or continued relevance.” She vows to eliminate earmarks, support the line-item veto and cut wasteful subsidies.
Democrat Joe Donnelly, mounting a vigorous challenge against one of the brightest lights in the Republican House constellation, Rep. Chris Chocola (R.-Ind.), says budget deficits are a “hidden tax on all of us” and vows to pursue a “common-sense, fiscally-prudent approach.” Jack Davis, the Democratic challenging Rep. Tom Reynolds (R.-N.Y.), also eschews pork projects. “I don’t visualize the congressman’s job,” he said, “as financing a lot of local favored projects.” Rather, lawmakers should “serve the people [in] ways that are described in the Constitution.”
Spending is a high-profile issue in several contested Senate races as well. In Rhode Island, Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse criticizes incumbent Lincoln Chafee for opposing funding for port security even as he supported “billions in out-of-state pork-barrel projects.” The tag line in his ad reads: “Lincoln Chafee. Securing pork, not our ports.”
Nowhere has the issue of local pork reared its head with more intensity than in the neck-and-neck battle between incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) and Democratic challenger Jon Tester. Tester struck first with an ad where he said: “It’s time we stand up to … billions of pork including ‘bridges to nowhere.’” He took a pledge against all earmarks — “period.”
Rather than cower in a corner, Burns decided in his latest radio ad to seek credit for all this largesse. In Montana, you see, “neighbors help neighbors” and there’s no better neighbor than one who serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. It seems an area in Montana known as the “Hi-Line” is literally awash in Uncle Sam’s neighborly assistance, benefiting from earmarks for “the things we need” such as fish hatcheries and “key” water projects. By opposing earmarks, Testor “is not being a good neighbor.” The risk? The Hi-Line may become “the dry-line.”
Credit is due to those Republicans in competitive races who have seized the high ground on spending. In an ad, Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) pounces on his opponent’s defense of pork spending, saying: “Pork means higher taxes, higher deficits … higher income taxes, [higher] taxes on small businesses.” Pete Ricketts, running against Sen. Ben Nelson in Nebraska, is doing the same thing. But they are the exceptions.
Liberal activists may find it galling that so many of their strongest candidates are running as fiscal conservatives. But frustrated small government conservatives are quietly saying: We told you so.