Commentary Magazine


Topic: earmarks

Reid Sets a Trap for GOP on Earmarks

Harry Reid is making trouble again. With Republicans still squabbling over the establishment-Tea Party rift, the Senate’s top Democrat sat down with reporters from the Huffington Post to offer some comments perfectly designed to make Republicans even angrier at each other.

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Harry Reid is making trouble again. With Republicans still squabbling over the establishment-Tea Party rift, the Senate’s top Democrat sat down with reporters from the Huffington Post to offer some comments perfectly designed to make Republicans even angrier at each other.

According to HuffPo:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects congressional earmarks will be revived and insisted senior Republican Party members support the return of congressionally directed spending.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Reid argued that the prohibition on earmarks was a mistake that tipped the balance of power away from the legislative branch and toward the president. He said he wants the ability to approve specific spending projects to be put back under control of Congress.

Reid said top House Republicans have told him they support earmarks and would like to see the practice return. He said those he’s spoken to include “a very senior member of the House Republican caucus.” Reid wouldn’t name names, but said that the lawmaker is “still there” — meaning it’s likely not Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Reid’s timing is almost certainly no coincidence. As political targets go, earmarks are the broad side of a barn. Because they explicitly direct taxpayer cash, it’s easy to find ridiculous pork-barrel projects and obvious wastes of money. During the Bush presidency, Majority Leader Tom DeLay used earmarks as a disciplinary tool. The more transparency that developed–that is, the more easily specific earmarks could be traced not only to their destination but back to their congressional source–the more easily they could be used much as campaign-finance regulation is used: as incumbent-protection plans.

Hence they came to be hated by conservatives even before the rise of the Tea Party. When Republicans gained and then lost control of Congress, much of it was blamed by the grassroots on GOPers falling prey to the lure of power and appropriations and forgetting its limited-government roots. Conservatives said Republicans deserved to lose because they began spending money just like Democrats.

The Tea Party’s arrival on the scene was part of this trend, and it’s easy to see why earmarks are a stand-in for precisely what drives budget hawks crazy about Washington. But they also posed a specific threat to the Tea Party: as districts became less competitive, the primary contests were where the real action was. And, in the House at least, winning a primary got you most of the way to punching your ticket to Congress. (The Senate has been a tougher party to crash.)

So Reid’s timing for dropping this hint about the return of earmarks was perfect, at least from his standpoint. Just a few years ago, an incumbent running against a self-described Tea Partier was an underdog. But this year, incumbents and establishment candidates have been able to push back. In part this has been because the Tea Party’s early victories have enabled it to shape the party’s congressional agenda, so primaries these days are often conservatives running against conservatives–Dave Brat against Eric Cantor is a much different matchup than Pat Toomey against Arlen Specter.

But the recent runoff victory by incumbent Thad Cochran over Chris McDaniel is highly relevant to the debate over earmarks. Cochran was expected to lose the runoff. Primary turnout is already lower than general-election turnout, and a runoff lower still. Usually.

Cochran turned the tables by crossing the aisle and making a successful pitch to Mississippi’s black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic. He did so by reminding black voters that he brings home the bacon for them, despite the fact that they don’t vote for him in general elections. Pro-Cochran groups hired black leaders to make the same plea. It worked, and Cochran won.

The lesson here is that Cochran’s record was not enough to placate the grassroots, but that he could win by emphasizing his spending on federal programs that help his state. If Republican leaders pine for the days of earmarks, it’s easy to see why. Not only could they help defeat conservative insurgents, but the House caucus has become far more difficult for the leadership to control–witness House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to Brat, who had been abandoned even by Tea Party groups.

Reid is also handing his Republican counterparts a live grenade in offering a plausible-sounding justification for earmarks: they could help devolve spending power back to the Congress from the White House. It is, of course, a trap. Earmarks may not have been the budget poison they were sometimes made out to be, and they certainly weren’t all bridges to nowhere. But they will not stop this president from taking executive action, and they will not bring Democrats on board for the House GOP’s reform agenda.

Reid is trying to sucker the GOP leadership into a prolonged fight with its base that the establishment will eventually lose. At times earmarks got more attention than they warranted. But the GOP leadership doesn’t stand to gain from being their champion.

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Sandy Funding is Earmark Revival

Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

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Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

Earmarks had been banned by the House but under the cover of sympathy for Sandy, they have made a remarkable comeback. Here are just a few of the outrageous items that somehow were slipped into the $60.4 billion relief package:

 * $150 million for Alaskan fisheries

* $41 million for military facilities such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

* $8 million to buy cars for the Justice and Homeland Security departments

* $3.1 million for an animal disease center

* $2 million for repair of the roofs of the Smithsonian Institution museums

* $58 million for reforestation on private land

* $100 million for Head Start day care centers

* $17 billion for Community Development Block grants that act as slush funds for members of Congress

While much of the money in the bill is intended for and will go to genuine victims of Sandy, these items demonstrate that a great deal of the funds allocated here will not do so. That’s why the mockery of the calls for accountability by congressional critics of the bill is mere partisan flummery. The fact that such practices are traditional is no defense of their continuation.

The willingness of the mainstream media to jump on Boehner for slowing down the rush to pass this pork-laden bill gives the lie to all of the lip service being paid to the idea of reducing spending and ending the corruption endemic to the earmark process. Though relief for Sandy’s victims can and should be passed, natural disasters should not be used as a flimsy cover for corrupt earmarks and patronage schemes.

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