Fighting the earmark favor factory can be a thankless job in Washington. Just five years ago Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) could muster only 15 votes against the Bridge to Nowhere, one of the most notorious earmarks in history.
Coburn isn’t so lonesome anymore. He was able to persuade 39 senators to vote Tuesday for a three-year earmark ban, notable progress in the quest to end pork-barrel politics.
The U.S. Senate ultimately rejected Coburn’s earmark moratorium by a vote of 56 to 39. But what was especially significant to Coburn and other anti-earmark crusaders were the nearly 40 senators—including seven Democrats—who voted for the ban.
Supporters knew the moratorium—as an amendment that required 67 votes for a suspension of Senate rules to pass—would be a hard sell. They didn’t know until yesterday just how much support has grown.
“The American people should be encouraged that more senators are willing to listen,” Coburn said in a statement.
Even last March, when the Senate voted on a similar ban, just 29 senators supported it. Pork has simply been an increasingly entrenched part of the congressional culture. Earmarks in the highway bill, for example, increased from 10 in 1982 to more than 7,000 in 2005, Coburn said. This year, members of Congress requested more than 37,000 earmarks. Viewed from that angle, 39 votes looks promising to those who have long wanted earmarking to end.
Republicans started the on-the-record resistance when, in their conference meeting on Nov. 16, they adopted a non-binding proposal to give up earmarks in the 112th Congress. Once the GOP takes control of the House in January, the Republican majority will likely expand its own moratorium to the entire chamber.
The Senate isn’t quite ready to follow suit. Eight Republican senators joined 48 Democrat senators on Tuesday to continue earmarking. Still, with 39 votes in favor of the moratorium, earmark critics are in a better position to thwart plans to pass a pork-filled omnibus during the lame-duck session.
They’re also gearing up for future fights. Coburn and others — including Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), Claire McCaskill (D.-Mo.) and Mark Udall (D.-Colo.), who teamed with him to sponsor the moratorium — are in it for the long haul.
“I’ll continue to offer this amendment until Congress ends this egregious practice once and for all,” Coburn said.
He seems to have the support of a majority of Americans, as well. In a survey conducted by pollster Kellyanne Conway and reported by the group Let Freedom Ring, majorities of self-identified Democrats (55%), Republicans (66%) and independents (73%) all agreed that earmarks have a negative influence on the legislative process.