Earmark dispute splits GOP senators

Image: Jim DeMint
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.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA file
/ Source: msnbc.com

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.

“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.

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.

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.