The tea party movement, which helped Republicans swamp Democrats on Election Day, will likely get its first big payback today when Senate Republicans are expected to vote to impose a voluntary moratorium on congressional earmarks, a symbolic step toward the kind of fiscal austerity the movement wants to see imposed on the federal government.
But that small victory may turn out to be a fleeting one. Even before the moratorium is adopted, some influential GOP senators are dismissing the ban as political gamesmanship and say they are prepared to defy the moratorium and continue to pursue earmarks.
“I don’t think so,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said when asked if she would comply with the resolution. Murkowski said the ban is merely “about messaging” and would give a misleading impression of taking on the deficit. “I don’t think it is being straight up with the public,” she said.
Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would not commit to complying with a ban resolution, saying he would see “what other options” are available. And Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was unlikely to honor the ban. He introduced legislation Monday to change the earmarking process, including barring congressional aides from participating in fundraising activities; creating a new database of all earmarks; giving the Government Accountability Office the power to randomly audit earmarks; and requiring lawmakers to certify that a recipient of an earmark is qualified to handle the project being funded.
Of the three, Murkowski is the one who is increasingly challenging party leaders. She defied them after losing her primary to Joe Miller, waging a write-in campaign that appears to have earned her another term. During the campaign, she was unapologetic about her ability to bring home spending for her state.
The ban — which is expected to be offered today by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., at a caucus meeting — would bar earmarks for two years.
Passage of the proposal was uncertain until Monday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he would back the moratorium on earmarks, a sharp reversal of his recent opposition to such a ban.
“I will join the Republican leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech.
McConnell, a longtime appropriator and unapologetic earmarker, defended his past support of the practice but said he’s decided to follow popular opinion by embracing a “small but important step we can take to show we’re serious” about cutting spending.
McConnell said his decision followed talks with colleagues and constituents.
“As the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example,” McConnell said. “Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for thepast two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.”
However, in a Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll taken right before the August recess, funneling money back home was the only factor a majority of the public cited as being a factor in their support for a congressional candidate. The survey, conducted with the Pew Research Center, showed that 53 percent of the public said they were more likely to vote for the person on the ballot who had brought government projects and money to their home district.
Only 12 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for the candidate. A third of those surveyed, 33 percent, said it would make no difference either way.
Following McConnell’s announcement, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is also an appropriator and has defended earmarks, announced he would also back the resolution.
President Obama praised McConnell for taking on the issue.
“I welcome Sen. McConnell’s decision to join me and members of both parties who support cracking down on wasteful earmark spending, which we can’t afford during these tough economic times,” Obama said.
The president might have given DeMint and his supporters some cover in his Saturday address when he called for reforming the earmarking process. “Now, some of these earmarks support worthy projects in our local communities. But many others do not.... When it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact,” Obama said.
Until just a few days ago, McConnell was staunchly against the measure, arguing that it would surrender too much congressional authority to the executive branch, while not actually reducing spending. He was also avidly lobbying GOP senators against backing the resolution.