On March 13th, the Senate took up the DeMint Amendment, number 4347, to the Senate Budget bill. The amendment, which was “to establish an earmark moratorium for fiscal year 2009,” had 15 cosponsors, including all three presidential candidates. (Complete roll-call vote information can be found HERE.)
More precisely, the measure would have banned earmarks, “limited tax benefits” or “limited tariff benefits” unless the point of order against them were overridden by a vote of 2/3 of the Senate. (The text of the amendment can be seen about ¼ of the way down THIS PAGE.) The defeat of the measure showed not only a gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue but also, within the GOP, between Senators who have been elected relatively recently and those who have been marinating in the DC swamp for too many years.
While more Republicans voted against the measure than for it (26 to 23), of the 16 current Republican members of the Senate who were elected in the past three elections, all but three voted for the Amendment. Two of those no votes were Senators Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and David Vitter (Louisiana), both from states who have received massive amounts of earmarked spending, including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” fiasco and billions in post-Katrina relief, respectively.
The third no vote from a recently-elected Senator was by Norm Coleman (Minnesota) who has drifted somewhat left lately, possibly due to his position as one of the most vulnerable GOP candidates in the 2008 election. John Ensign, current chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee voted for the measure. Perhaps, Ensign understands that excessive spending was indeed an reason for the GOP’s electoral bludgeoning in 2006.
Two days before the vote on the DeMint Amendment, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) spoke about the issue on the Senate floor. Coburn’s 35-page presentation, some of which was added to the record rather than given in person, can and should be read HERE.
After pointing out that Senators take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, Coburn made an impassioned argument that members of Congress regularly “place parochialism ahead of our duty to this country,” adding “There’s no way I can make a decision that is in the long-term best interest of my country if I’m thinking about the best interest of my state in the short term.”
Coburn was not subtle in questioning the accuracy of Congressional accounting: “So when you hear a number that comes from Washington, I want us to be very suspect because we are much like the CEO at Enron, Ken Lay. We are not going to send you the real number. It is not because we do not intend to be honest; it is because we have sold out to parochialism.”
In one of the few great lines in Senate budget history, Senator Coburn gave one answer to that question: “Earmarks are the gateway drug to overspending,” pointing out that if you don’t vote for someone else’s bill (most often another slab of pork), then you won’t get your earmark the next time. So, if you want a project in your state, you have to let everyone else get theirs as well.”
Coburn spent a large part of his presentation describing over $380 billion “in annual expenditures that are wasted” putting the number in context by noting “It is $3,000 for every American household in this country down the drain….It is enough money to get the 2 million Americans who are facing foreclosure out of foreclosure and pay for their entire mortgage….It is enough money to pay for the health care of everybody in this country who is either underinsured or uninsured….It is more than the gross domestic product of 85 percent of every country on Earth.”
Coburn argued that this waste is possible, in large part, because Senators and their staffs are too busy managing earmarks to properly perform their oversight functions. His outline of that waste, which he called “2008: A Waste Odyssey,” includes $80 billion in Medicare fraud, $30 billion in improper Medicaid payments, and $17.5 billion in national flood insurance, as well as smaller but just as outrageous items like $8 billion in undeserved Department of Defense performance bonuses to contractors.
Other Senators’ reactions to the DeMint Amendment were less inspiring. According to CBS News, “Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, once said their efforts would succeed over his dead body — ‘I will be taken out of here on a stretcher,’ he snarled.” And, making Coburn’s point at least as well as Coburn did, “Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., warned she would retaliate. ‘What is good for the goose is good for the gander. …Your project may be next.’”
After the defeat of his Amendment, Senator DeMint said what seems to be obvious to most Americans, though not to 71% of the Senate: “Tonight, too many in Congress embraced the earmark favor factory and proved why we have the lowest approval rating in history. Earmarks represent the worst of wasteful Washington spending. The big spenders in Congress may still desperately cling to their pork, but our presidential candidates have made it clear the current system is unacceptable. Americans want the bridges to nowhere and earmark scandals to stop.”
The day after the DeMint Amendment was defeated, John McCain, who claims to “have never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork barrel project,” called on Senators Obama and Clinton, both late co-sponsors of the DeMint Amendment, to release their requests for earmarks to the public.
Barack Obama released his list for 2005 and 2006, one highlight of which was a $1 million earmark for the hospital where his wife, Michelle, works and which gave her a $195,000 raise just after Obama took his seat in the Senate.
The Clinton campaign’s response to the request for earmark transparency was a thing of beauty…for her opponents. Clinton’s press office says that she will not disclose her prior earmarks. Instead, her office will “release all of our requests going forward,” saying that “Senator Clinton will limit requests for earmarks this year to the most critical needs for New York and America….” Earmark reform, indeed. The Chicago Tribune got it right in a March 16th editorial entitled “What is Clinton hiding?”: “Her spokesman…declare(d) that she is ‘proud of the investments in New York that she has secured.’ But for now, at least, not proud enough to let voters know what they are. This exercise in secrecy is part of a Clinton pattern that grows more worrisome all the time.”
House members took the Senate vote much the same way NASCAR drivers react to a green light: On March 19th, the House Appropriations Committee was forced to extend its earmark request deadline from that day until 11:59 PM on March 24th after the House web site designed to process earmarks crashed due to an overload of pork. According to Roll Call, “a massive influx of requests caused unavoidable access and processing delays.” Roll Call also notes that “more than 90 percent of Members are expected to submit them despite calls for a moratorium from House Republican leaders, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the three remaining major presidential candidates.”
The politics surrounding earmarks is not simply Republican versus Democrat, but also across the divide within the Republican Party over recognition of fiscal responsibility as an electoral issue. The DeMint Amendment shows that the GOP needs a lot more housecleaning before we can expect it to return to being a party that Reagan would be proud of.