Democrats Aren't Ready to Give Up Pork

The sterile, confused lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress ended with a quiet victory by reformers that staved off an estimated 10,000 earmarks. But it could not be called a farewell to pork. Last Thursday, as the House neared adjournment, Democrats signaled they may countenance a return to free and easy spending ways when they assume the majority Jan. 4.

The hero of the lame-duck session was freshman Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. He was instrumental in blocking a Senate-House conference on a military construction appropriations bill, which would then be used as the last train out of town to carry pork. But just as the reformers were cheering last Thursday, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats defeated a procedure designed to inhibit Pentagon earmarks.

That leaves an unanswered question for the new Democratic majority. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the dynamic new member of the House Democratic leadership, has exhorted colleagues not to forget that their campaign against the Republican "climate of corruption" brought them into power. But does Emanuel’s concept of reform go beyond new lobbyist control regulations and extend to the bipartisan addiction to pork-barrel spending?

The first closed-door meeting of Republican senators following their drubbing in the election erupted in discord after the leadership laid out plans for an omnibus spending bill, putting all unfinished appropriations bills in one package. That would provide a cornucopia of earmarks for members of Congress to bring home to their constituents.

But DeMint rose to make clear that he and his fellow freshman Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, would use the many parliamentary devices at their disposal to block an omnibus bill. Their alternative was what is called a continuing resolution, extending spending at its present level into next February. That meant the lame-duck session would be porkless.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the old appropriator renowned for delivering pork home to Alaska, erupted with an exhibition of his famous hair-trigger temper. Sen. Thad Cochran, a courtly Southern gentleman and Stevens’s successor as Appropriations Committee chairman, made the case in calmer language. Sen. John McCain, happy to have two Senate rookies pick up the anti-pork mantle he has carried for many years, was making snide comments in a stage whisper. But DeMint was not about to be moved by either threats or persuasion.

The military construction bill was the last vehicle suitable for earmarks. The formidable Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the Appropriations subcommittee chairman handling that measure, was determined to conclude action on it in a Senate-House conference. With uncharacteristic anger last week, a frustrated Chairman Cochran said he was not about to take dictation from two freshman senators. But they blocked the conference from taking place.

As this became clear last Thursday, a second triumph for the reformers loomed with apparent imminent passage of Coburn’s "report card," under which the Pentagon would grade earmarks on a scale of A to F. Before the election recess, the Senate voted 96 to 1 to add that proposal to the Defense appropriations bill. But the fix was in. The House removed the Coburn amendment by a 394 to 32 vote, while promising to consider it as a free-standing bill in the lame-duck session.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter went on the House floor Thursday to approve the report card. But the appropriators struck back. Rep. Bill Young, chairman of the Defense appropriations subcommittee, argued: "I don’t want the Pentagon to spend all that time grading the work that we in the Congress do." Rep. Ike Skelton, Hunter’s Democratic successor, said the next Congress "will offer a better approach." Young and Skelton both predicted the report card would inhibit earmarking. The proposal was voted down Friday, 330-70, with only two Democrats voting for it.

The issue of spending reform is now in Democratic hands. Emanuel, the newly elected House Democratic Caucus chairman, on Nov. 17 e-mailed colleagues with a call for reform. The takeover of the House that he led as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Emanuel said, sent a message that "it’s time for a change, and change starts by cleaning up Washington." But in reiterating the Democratic campaign’s promises to "reform lobbying and ethics rules," Emanuel did not mention the corrupting influence of earmarks.