As the final hours of the 109th Congress wind down, a handful of Senate conservatives have taken it upon themselves to ensure that the final act of the Republican congressional majority will not be the passage of a bunch of pork-laden spending bills.
Led by Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, these fiscal conservatives are determined to heed what they consider one of the major lessons of the 2006 midterm elections: Americans don’t appreciate politicians who are careless with the people’s money.
Unfortunately, that lesson appears to be lost on many in Congress.
Indeed, powerful Republican appropriators remained unrepentant. After the elections they made their desire to pass the remaining appropriations bills clear. Those remaining spending bills were to serve as vehicles for the attachment of billions of dollars worth of congressional earmarks for members to deliver to their home districts just in time for Christmas. The cavalier nature in which congressional big spenders have doled out the cash promised to make this Christmas, like so many in the past, a merry one for pork-hungry lawmakers.
But this will not come to pass. DeMint, Coburn and others have decided to turn the tables and deliver their own Christmas present to the American taxpayer.
By using every parliamentary option available to them, Senate conservatives stared down members of their own party over this issue and successfully garnered $7 billion worth of savings. Both DeMint and Coburn played watchdog on the floor of the Senate by objecting to motions designed to pass the big spending bills and by filing their own list of amendments designed slow down the process enough to ensure the billions in savings. At times, the debate grew heated.
On Monday, Senators DeMint, Coburn and James Inhofe sent a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist in which they boldly handled a political hot potato: funding for the military. The Military Construction, Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill was headed to a conference report with the House of Representatives, and the Senate conservatives were certain mischief would be done.
So often in the past, a similar spending bill at the end of a congressional session has been used by congressional big spenders as a vehicle to attach all the remaining spending bills and pork projects to. That’s because congressional rules require that bill be sent back to the House and Senate for an up-or-down vote, leaving no way for members to challenge the thousands of earmarks that were added.
Conservatives feared that this would again be the case with the military spending bill. In their letter to Frist they made clear that they wouldn’t support the measure unless they were given ironclad assurances that the usual business of larding up the bill would not occur.
Appropriators, according to multiple Senate aides, were apoplectic. The idea that young and less influential Senators would challenge the old guard was blasphemous. But conservatives held their ground.
On Wednesday, DeMint took the floor to publicly object to a motion offered by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to move the bill to a conference. “I have made it clear that this bill, which is a good bill, needs to stay clean of additional appropriations and earmarks if it is to go to conference,” said DeMint. “I have made it clear that all we want is a commitment from the leader and from the appropriations committee that this is what will happen.”
DeMint, who was elected as the next leader of the conservative Senate Steering Committee this week, was unwavering in his insistence that the Congress produce a clean bill. Hutchison, whose Appropriations subcommittee crafted the bill, was beside herself at the objections of the conservatives but she pledged to find a way to get DeMint the assurances he and his allies sought and over the course of the day produced those assurances (though it remains doubtful that any spending bills will pass because there are too few days remaining in the congressional session).
Appropriators, still stewing over the actions of fiscal conservatives, will no doubt lay the blame for their inability to pass this year’s appropriations bills at the feet of DeMint, Coburn and others, but the lesson appears clear: congressional big spenders, because of their shameless addiction to pork projects, could not acquiesce to even the simplest of requests: please don’t add billions of dollars in pork projects to your remaining spending bills.
Because of their willingness to go to the mat for their principles, Senate conservatives were the ones who played Santa Claus this December. And the biggest change of all is certainly that the taxpayers will be the ones receiving the presents, not pork-hungry lawmakers.
One Senate GOP aide offered this amusing note: “Bad news, fellas: the Favor Factory has been closed for the year. Maybe Santa will bring your projects, but I don’t know how he is going to get an indoor rainforest or a bridge to nowhere down your chimney.”