The congressional Republican establishment’s charade, pretending to crack down on spending earmarks while actually preserving their uncontrolled addiction to pork, faces embarrassment this week when the Democratic-designed budget is brought to the Senate floor. The party’s presidential nominee-presumptive, Sen. John McCain, is an uncompromising pork buster with no use for the evasions by Republican addicts on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Jim DeMint, a first-term reform Republican from South Carolina, will propose a no-loopholes one-year moratorium on earmarks as a budget amendment. McCain has announced his support for the DeMint amendment and will co-sponsor it. DeMint wants to coordinate McCain’s visits from the campaign trail to the Senate floor so the candidate can be there to speak for and vote for the moratorium.
The irony could hardly be greater. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, an ardent earmarker, is smart enough politically to realize how unpopular the practice is with the Republican base. Consequently, McConnell combines anti-earmark rhetoric with evasive tactics to save pork. But McCain, surely not the presidential candidate that McConnell wanted, is leading his party with a pledge to veto any bill containing earmarks. McConnell is running for re-election from Kentucky bragging about the pork he has brought the state.
McConnell has appointed a "task force" of five Republican senators to study earmarks, headed by the universally respected Richard Lugar of Indiana. But Lugar never has shown much interest in the subject. The dominant member is Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and the Senate’s reigning king of pork. Cochran, who not long ago called McCain unfit to be president, secured $774 million in earmarks this year. Add earmarks of three other task-force members — Lugar, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho — and the task force accounts for more than $1.1 billion in pork.
The fifth task-force member is Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, DeMint’s partner in pork-fighting and McCain’s supporter for the presidential nomination. How could Cochran and Coburn agree on earmarks? The answer is that they cannot agree. "Everyone knows," a Senate reformer told me, "Cochran will never allow his right to earmark to be diminished."
Since McConnell insists on "consensus" without a majority or minority report, all that will come out of the task force is a call for "transparency."
Lawyer-like, Republican leaders are demanding the definition of an earmark. They could get a good idea by looking at just a sample of current earmarks secured by task force members. Cochran: $475,000 for beaver management in Mississippi. Lugar: $240,000 to rehabilitate the Alhambra Theater in Evansville, Ind. Isakson: $300,000 for Old Fort Jackson in Savannah, Ga. Crapo: $250,000 for the Idaho sage grouse.
House Republican evasions are subtler. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a staunch defender of earmarking, has proposed a statutory "earmark reform commission," with a maximum six-month life, during which Republicans would refrain from earmarking. But that will allow them to be back at the pork barrel before the year ends.
House Republican Leader John Boehner, who unlike McConnell does not earmark and criticizes the practice, flinched from making a bold move as this year’s session of Congress began. He could have led the House Republican Conference to endorse a yearlong moratorium and name reformer Jeff Flake of Arizona to a vacancy on the Appropriations Committee.
Instead, the Republicans picked Jo Bonner of Alabama, who spent 18 years as a House staffer before his election in 2002. Bonner has voted against Flake in 49 out of 50 attempts to kill earmarks. He has promised his Mobile-area constituents they would get "fair value" for their tax dollar — the justification for bringing home the bacon from Washington. Incredibly, Boehner hailed Bonner’s selection as a step toward earmark reform.
The GOP may be falling behind the Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moving toward a moratorium. In the Senate, courageous freshman Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri supports the DeMint amendment. She could be joined by her choice for president, Barack Obama. These developments encouraged Flake to say: "If Democrats actually move ahead with an earmark moratorium before Republicans, the Democrats will get the credit for eliminating earmarks, and, frankly, they’ll deserve it."