Image: Jim DeMint
Jim Lo Scalzo  /  EPA file
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint talks to the media after speaking to religious conservatives at the Family Research Council's fifth annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on Sept. 17.
updated 11/11/2010 10:06:09 AM ET 2010-11-11T15:06:09

Even as they prepare to welcome 13 newly elected Republicans into their ranks, GOP senators have already fired the opening salvos in an intraparty ideological battle over federal spending — one that threatens to divide the upper chamber’s Old Bulls and newer Tea Party-aligned members.

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a champion of conservative candidates like Florida’s Marco Rubio and Utah’s Mike Lee, announced Tuesday that he will push Senate Republicans to vote to make “earmarking” — the process by which lawmakers can set aside federal funds for pet projects in their home states — expressly against internal GOP rules.

Six of the new GOP freshmen, including five who received backing from DeMint during their campaigns, have signed on to his proposal.

But, while DeMint and other Senate fiscal conservatives argue that so-dubbed “pork barrel spending” wastes taxpayer dollars and facilitates fishy political back-scratching, other Republicans say that a ban would do little to curb government spending and would put more control into the hands of government agencies rather than lawmakers who best understand their constituents.

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“This debate doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending and get the federal government's discretionary accounts under control,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma was even more blunt. “The ban doesn’t accomplish anything,” he told POLITICO.

Several of the GOP candidates who won Senate seats on Nov. 2 made earmark reform a central plank of their campaign pitches. Former presidential nominee Sen. John McCain was a high-profile champion of the idea during the 2008 presidential race, commonly accusing Congress of wasting money with the gusto of "a drunken sailor."

(But, although he refuses to request earmarks, his home state of Arizona doesn't lack a Senate advocate for federal cash; according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, McCain's GOP colleague Jon Kyl has been the solo sponsor of 10 requested earmarks in the last three fiscal years, totaling about $50 million in funds for the state.

For and against
McConnell and others who are wary of DeMint’s proposal say that eliminating congressional earmarks would simply shift the responsibility for doling out federal funds to executive branch agencies — essentially giving the White House greater power over government cash.

“Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do,” McConnell said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last week. “You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion.”

Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the anti-spending group Citizens Against Government Waste (publishers of the the annual “Pig Book,” which details pork barrel spending) calls that argument “a crock.” She argues that money for earmarks is often set aside in Congress’s budgeting process — funds that could easily be reduced if they were not available for non-competitive projects targeted by individual lawmakers.

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In the current earmarking process, lawmakers must submit written letters suggesting recipients of government funds in their home state. If approved, the member’s name will appear alongside the legislative language that allows for the earmarked funds requested. However, the current procedure still bypasses the competitive bidding process usually administered by federal agencies — a shortcut which critics say encourages behind-the-scenes negotiations that often result in funds being spent where they’re not necessary.

How much would cutting earmarks save?
Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that, in the 2010 fiscal year, 9,129 earmarked projects totaled $16.5 billion in cost.

The group classifies an earmark as a spending item that is not competitively awarded; one that serves only a local or special interest; one that exceeds funds requested by Congress in its previous budget or in the president’s budget; or one that meets a handful of other similar criteria.

Defenders of the earmarking practice point out that the total annual cost of pet projects represents a tiny percentage of the overall federal budget. The president’s 2010 budget totaled about $3.5 trillion. The sum of the last year’s earmarks — $16.5 billion — is less than one half of one percent of that total.

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But Paige says that an earmark moratorium sends a symbolic message about eliminating political favors that “grease the skids” for lawmakers interested in bringing home the bacon on taxpayers’ dime.

“It’s not just the amount of money we’re talking about,” she said. “The thing about earmarks is that they are a symptom of a broken spending system.”

A non-binding vote
While DeMint’s proposal has the backing of some prominent GOP senators, including National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn of Texas, Republicans are deeply split on whether a moratorium should be instituted.

In a floor vote in March, 15 Republicans voted with most Democrats to kill a proposed earmark ban.

Even if it is ultimately adopted, the plan that will be debated behind closed doors on Tuesday may ultimately have little effect on the way the party approaches earmarking, at least in the short term. The vote is non-binding and will be conducted via secret ballot, so its supporters and opponents will be in no way bound to stick to their promises when the new Congress begins next year.

NBC's Ken Strickland contributed to this report.

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Video: DeMint on Tea Party agenda: lowering deficit, rejecting earmarks

  1. Transcript of: DeMint on Tea Party agenda: lowering deficit, rejecting earmarks

    MR. GREGORY: All right, let me move to a few others. The cultural litmus test for Republicans , I've been told, the earmark issue. This is pork barrel spending as part of the budget process . You want them done away with, as do other tea party lawmakers and other Republicans . But Mitch McConnell , of course, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate , was asked about it the other day, and this is what he said.

    SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R-KY): As I think all of you know, you could eliminate every congressional earmark and it would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion.

    MR. GREGORY: Doesn't sound like he's with you all the way. Is this a showdown coming for Republicans ?

    SEN. DeMINT: Well, it, it may be. But I think the message is clear from the American people , and I know there's some senior members in Congress who think it's their job to take on bacon. But the real reason for the dysfunction of Congress right now is you have over 500 congressmen and senators who think they're there to bring home the bacon. It's kind of, "To heck with America , just give me the money." We can't do that anymore. Parochial politics needs to be out in Washington .

    MR. GREGORY: But what about Leader McConnell ? He is not with you.

    SEN. DeMINT: We need to focus on...

    MR. GREGORY: He is suggesting that it's more a question of discretion. This is a leader of the Republicans . Are you prepared to go toe-to-toe with him, and is this going to be a big showdown with your Republican leadership?

    SEN. DeMINT: I don't think so. Mitch McConnell has voted twice for an earmark ban that I've proposed in the Senate . Just about every Republican who is running for the Senate this time ran on a no earmark pledge. And we've had a vote where over half of our conference has voted for the ban before. Obviously, I'm hopeful I will have leadership support. But we've got a number of co-sponsors. Tom Coburn and I are leading the effort for this earmark ban, and, and we know John Boehner has committed to it in the House . We're not going to have earmarks. So it's, it's really silly for some senior Republicans in the Senate to try to block it.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me ask you about another hot button issue, and that is the debt ceiling. Come spring Congress is going to have to vote to raise the debt ceiling because our debt is increasing and it's reaching the $4.3 trillion limit that Congress has already set -- $14.3 trillion limit that Congress set in February. Will you vote to increase the debt ceiling?

    SEN. DeMINT: No, I won't, not, not unless this debt ceiling is combined with some path to balancing our budget , returning to 2008 spending levels, repealing Obamacare . We have got to demonstrate that we have the resolve to cut spending. Now, we've already spent the money, and raising the debt ceiling is just like paying off your credit card bill; but we cannot allow that to go through the Congress without showing the American people that we are going to balance the budget and we're not going to continue to raise the debt in America .

    MR. GREGORY: All right. Well, let me ask you specifically about that. Where would -- do you think the American people have to be prepared for sacrifice? Which part of the budget , knowing that there's only 15 percent that's nondiscretionery, or that's real -- nondefense discretionary part of the budget , what are you going to target for cuts?

    SEN. DeMINT: Well, I don't think the American people are going to have to sacrifice as much as the government bureaucrats who get paid about twice what the American worker does. First of all, we just need to return to pre- Obama levels of spending in 2008 . We need to cut earmarks so people will quit focusing on taking home the bacon. We need to defund Obamacare , and then we need to look at the entitlement programs, such as the way Paul Ryan has done in the House with his road maps to America 's future, to fix our tax code, to fix Social Security and Medicare , and to cut the cost over time . We've got the plans, David , to do this, we just -- we need to talk about them, we need to help the American people see where we're going...

    MR. GREGORY: But let me just...

    SEN. DeMINT: ...but we can cut spending.

    MR. GREGORY: Let me just stop you. I want to be very, very, very specific because going back to 2008 spending levels will not get anywhere close to balancing the budget . So you're saying that everything has to be on the table -- cuts in defense, cuts in Medicare , cuts in Social Security . Is that right?

    SEN. DeMINT: Well, no, we're not talking about cuts in Social Security . If we can just cut the administrative waste, we can cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year at the federal level . So before we start cutting -- I mean, we need to keep our promises to seniors, David , and cutting benefits to seniors is not on the table. Excuse me, let me grab a sip of water.

    MR. GREGORY: But then, but where, but where do you make the cuts? I mean, if you're protecting everything for those, the most potent political groups like seniors who go out and vote, where are you really going to balance the budget ?

    SEN. DeMINT: Well, look at Paul Ryan 's road map to the future. We see a clear path to moving back to a balanced budget over time . Again, the plans are on the table. We don't have to cut benefits for seniors, and we don't need to cut Medicare like, like the Democrats did in this big Obamacare bill. We can restore sanity in Washington without cutting any benefits to seniors or veterans.


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