Earmark Ban Shootout in the Senate

Early fireworks are expected today in the Senate as the Republicans struggle to end the abuse of earmarks.  The intra-caucus conflict is spilling out into debate on the Senate floor today, this first day of the post-election lame duck session of Congress.

Republican members of the Senate will vote on Tuesday whether to declare a moratorium on earmarks.  The vote is non-binding on either party but represents a symbolic commitment from Republicans to ban earmarks on the Republican side of the aisle.

“Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark-favor factory…. I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork-barrel spending,” said Senator Jim DeMint (R–S.C.). “Instead of spending time chasing money for pet projects, lawmakers will be able to focus on balancing the budget, reforming the tax code, and repealing the costly health-care takeover.”

Stepping forward to oppose the one-sided earmark ban forcefully is Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.), a conservative who says the proposed ban is not enforceable.

“A conference vote cannot bind a Senator’s vote.  That’s the Senate rule,” Inhofe told HUMAN EVENTS.

Inhofe believes that if the moratorium is self-enforced by Republicans, it cedes too much ground to Democrats.  He also says the DeMint definition of an earmark is too broad, even though the language was included in a Senate amendment offered by DeMint in 2007 that passed by a vote of 98–0.

DeMint’s amendment language states, “the term ‘congressional earmark’ means a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process.”

Inhofe argues that if a Senator agrees to restrict “a provision … included primarily at the request of a Member” and featuring the phrase “or other expenditure” (as indicated in the amendment), then that Senator is effectively ceding authority to make an appropriation.  By doing so, the oversight of expenditures is effectively handed to Democrats, a move that would work against the conservative watchdog agenda.

Inhofe says that he has an alternative plan that he will offer from the Senate floor on Monday, a plan that everyone can agree with.

The debate has gotten heated.

“Many big-spending Senators will demagogue earmarks in order to cover up their big spending,” Inhofe told HE. 

Inhofe is expected to point out what he calls the “hypocrisy” in his floor presentation Monday.

The fireworks will only intensify as Tuesday’s conference vote looms. 

If adopted, the earmark moratorium would unite Senate Republicans with House Republicans, who adopted a moratorium a year ago.  Rep. John Boehner (R–Ohio), the apparent new Speaker of the House, is also asking members for another moratorium on earmarks for the new 112th Congress.

The cosponsors of the Senate proposal to ban earmarks in the Republican conference are Jim DeMint (S.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Cornyn (Texas), Richard Burr (N.C.), and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), along with Senators-elect Pat Toomey (Penn.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wisc.), and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.).

“I am a recovering earmarker,” DeMint told Fox News in an interview on Sunday.  “Thankfully, there are support groups now all across the country, and we call ‘em the Tea Parties.”

The clear election mandate from voters was for Congress to stop the runaway spending.  Earmarks represent only a fraction of the spending problem from a budgetary standpoint, yet are symbolic of the top-down, Washington-knows-best mentality. 

Both House and Senate Republican conference-passed earmark bans are non-binding.  The leadership of the House of Representatives through House rules could ban earmarks in earnest by making any bill containing an earmark as specifically defined “out of order.”

One thing is certain: America is watching, and voters expect this Congress to get a grip on spending, no matter how they do it.