Will Democrats Rein in Earmarks?

Democrats have been such consistent supporters of higher taxes and larger, more intrusive government in recent years that fiscal conservatives view them with enormous suspicion. However, this November’s elections showed that most voters feel that Republicans have set a new standard of fiscal recklessness in recent years and Democrats deserve a chance to prove they can do better.

The announcement by Rep. David Obey (D.-Wis.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.) that they will pass an earmarks-free continuing resolution to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, 2007, is a good first step toward following through on the Democrats’ election promise to be the party of fiscal discipline.

Earmarks became emblematic of the Republicans’ fiscal profligacy in the 109th Congress. Wasteful spending almost by definition, earmarks are parochial projects that are funded directly by Congress, bypassing the normal competitive processes for winning funding through federal and state agencies. Their purpose is to substitute political judgment for professional judgment, resulting in real or perceived corruption as funds are steered directly to favored projects.

Many of those projects, such as the now-infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, sparked voter outrage. Earlier this year a McLaughlin & Associates poll found that 75% of Americans want Congress to reduce or eliminate earmarks, a number that is the same for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation toured the country this year to raise awareness of the issue, traveling over 10,000 miles to the sites of 50 particularly egregious earmarks, and found that taxpayers around the country and across the political spectrum were outraged by this wasteful spending. Republicans largely ignored what voters wanted and instead catered to special interests, larding over 12,000 earmarks into the 2006 appropriations bills.

Voters gave Democrats a chance to do better. A poll conducted by the Club for Growth on the weekend before the election gauged voter attitudes on earmarks in key swing districts. The poll found that voters wanted Congress to reduce spending, even if that meant fewer projects coming home to their district, by a more than 2-to-1 margin. The same poll found that voters believed, by a 3-to-2 margin, that Republicans are now the party of big government and that Democrats are doing a better job eliminating wasteful spending.

In the final GOP defeat of 2006, Rep. Henry Bonilla from Texas, a member of the earmark-securing Appropriations Committee who called pork-barrel reform “insanity” on the House floor, was defeated in a run-off election last week, despite an overwhelming cash advantage and 14 years of incumbency.

Democrats know how they won, and the Obey-Byrd announcement is an early indication that they may control their big-government impulses and govern accordingly. The announcement of an earmark-free continuing resolution for fiscal 2007 means that Obey and Byrd have laid to rest over 10,000 earmarks totaling around $17 billion. Fiscally conservative Republicans also deserve credit for this victory, particularly Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. They wisely prevented the policy and political disaster of a lame duck rush to pass pork-stuffed appropriations bills last week.

The statement from Obey and Byrd promises a moratorium on earmarks until a reformed process is put in place. The effectiveness of that reform is now the key question for Democrats to keep control of this issue. Byrd, known as the Prince of Pork for the prodigious amounts of taxpayer dollars he has diverted to parochial West Virginia projects over the years, is an unlikely proponent of reining in earmarks. If it turns out Democrats were interested primarily in disposing of Republican earmarks, and the 2008 budget process plays out without meaningful reform, Democrats will lose their advantage on fiscal responsibility.

The best earmark reform short of an outright ban would be to require that every earmark be embodied in a standalone piece of legislation to be considered on its own merits. Failing that, a reasonable template for reform would be the proposal advanced by Democrats Rahm Emmanuel (D.-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md.) during the House earmark debate this past fall.

Their proposal would ban any member of Congress, his or her spouse, or immediate family member from benefiting from an earmark. It would ban the awarding of earmarks to any entity that employs or is represented by a former employee of the earmark’s sponsor, or is represented by a lobbying firm that employs any close relative of the earmark’s sponsor. It would ban tax measures to benefit one individual, corporation, or entity. And it would ban adding earmarks to conference reports that did not appear in either chamber’s original language.

These reforms, unfortunately, are not expected to be included in the House rules when the 110th Congress convenes in January. Instead, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has promised to identify the sponsor of each earmark, essentially the same limited reform she criticized as inadequate when Republicans passed it earlier this year. The Obey-Byrd moratorium buys some time for Pelosi to reconsider that decision and enact more substantial reform. Voters are watching with interest.