The Republican War Over Earmarks

In several upcoming primaries, Republican officeholders are increasingly willing to brag about bringing home the bacon.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
March 31, 2014, 5:40 p.m.

Ask Re­pub­lic­an voters if they sup­port fed­er­al funds to pay for hur­ricane re­cov­ery and in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ment, and many would say they do. Ask them if they sup­port ear­marks, and the re­sponse would be re­sound­ingly neg­at­ive. Over the next few months, the battle to define ap­pro­pri­ations will be in full swing in three cru­cial GOP Sen­ate primar­ies — Geor­gia, Ken­tucky, and Mis­sis­sippi — and the res­ults will go a long way to­ward de­fin­ing the fu­ture ideo­lo­gic­al dir­ec­tion of the party.

What’s strik­ing is that after spend­ing years on the de­fens­ive over ear­marks, the es­tab­lish­ment is be­gin­ning to fight back by chan­ging the terms of the de­bate. Fa­cing the toughest elec­tion in his ca­reer, Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi is air­ing ads high­light­ing his role de­liv­er­ing fed­er­al aid to the state’s Gulf Coast in the wake of Hur­ricane Kat­rina. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, while avoid­ing the sub­ject dur­ing the primary, is ex­pec­ted to tout his work se­cur­ing funds for dis­ad­vant­aged parts of Ken­tucky as a ma­jor theme in a tight gen­er­al elec­tion. Rep. Jack King­ston is gain­ing mo­mentum in the crowded Geor­gia primary, des­pite his back­ground as a House ap­pro­pri­at­or. He re­cently de­fen­ded his role in craft­ing budgets with ear­marks as get­ting “a little mud on your face” as part of the pro­cess.

Any veiled sup­port of pork is a risky pro­pos­i­tion in a Re­pub­lic­an primary — just ask Iowa Sen­ate can­did­ate Joni Ernst, who touted her ex­per­i­ence cas­trat­ing hogs as proof she can cut waste­ful spend­ing in Wash­ing­ton. But with Demo­crats chal­len­ging in all three races, prov­ing value to your con­stitu­ents is still a tried-and-true for­mula for a gen­er­al elec­tion. In­deed, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie used House Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion to the level of fund­ing for Hur­ricane Sandy re­lief as a ral­ly­ing cry for his reelec­tion cam­paign.

In a sign the tide has shif­ted, former Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Haley Bar­bour offered an un­apo­lo­get­ic de­fense of Co­chran’s in­flu­ence bring­ing home fed­er­al funds in a column that ran last week in the Sun Her­ald. In it, he touted Co­chran be­ing in po­s­i­tion to chair the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee if Re­pub­lic­ans re­take the Sen­ate, and high­lighted his vote to re­open the gov­ern­ment after the shut­down last Oc­to­ber. It’s not sur­pris­ing to see Bar­bour, one of Wash­ing­ton’s most im­pos­ing power brokers, de­fend the im­port­ance of in­flu­ence and seni­or­ity. But it was un­usu­al for him to do it so pub­licly — tak­ing the tea party on and dir­ect­ing his mes­sage to a con­ser­vat­ive Gulf Coast audi­ence who has be­nefited from the fed­er­al-re­cov­ery lar­gesse.

“Haley’s got some balls,” said his neph­ew, Henry Bar­bour, who is run­ning the pro-Co­chran Mis­sis­sippi Con­ser­vat­ives su­per PAC. “When a state gets hit by the worst nat­ur­al dis­aster in the his­tory of the coun­try, most people un­der­stand fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has a prop­er role there.”

The Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate primary, tak­ing place on June 3, is the most con­sequen­tial test of where the Re­pub­lic­an Party stands on the role of fed­er­al spend­ing. Even Co­chran in­siders re­gard the six-term sen­at­or as be­ing in ser­i­ous trouble, polling around 50 per­cent with softer sup­port than his tea-party-backed rival, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. But his cam­paign’s will­ing­ness to em­brace the ar­gu­ment that in­flu­ence and seni­or­ity still mat­ters — one that Re­pub­lic­ans have shied away from lately — could em­bolden Re­pub­lic­ans to tout their clout, es­pe­cially after primary sea­son is over.

“The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment fa­vors McDaniel, and some­times it’s hard to over­come the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, one that’s sick of Wash­ing­ton,” one Co­chran ally said. “But as Trent Lott once said, ‘Pork is fed­er­al spend­ing north of Mem­ph­is.’ “

All three up­com­ing races fea­tur­ing ap­pro­pri­at­ors in tough Sen­ate races — Co­chran, King­ston, and Mc­Con­nell — also share an­oth­er char­ac­ter­ist­ic. Demo­crats are ag­gress­ively con­test­ing all three seats on Re­pub­lic­an turf, and their re­cruits don’t have to be am­bi­val­ent about fed­er­al spend­ing. Un­til the GOP land­slide of 1994, Demo­crats re­tained a con­gres­sion­al strong­hold in the South even as the na­tion­al party drif­ted left, thanks to their vet­er­an mem­bers’ abil­ity to de­liv­er money to their home dis­tricts. While the par­tis­an makeup has dra­mat­ic­ally changed since then, voters still ap­pre­ci­ate the politi­cians with a re­cord of provid­ing to their con­stitu­ents.

“Our mes­sage is bet­ter in a primary than in a gen­er­al elec­tion,” con­ceded one con­ser­vat­ive strategist.

Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign is a clear-cut ex­ample of the del­ic­ate bal­ance Re­pub­lic­ans face on this front. Scott Jen­nings, who is run­ning Mc­Con­nell’s su­per PAC, re­called how the sen­at­or’s 2008 cam­paign ran tar­geted TV ads in each of the state’s me­dia mar­kets “as a re­cit­a­tion of the ear­marks we’d got­ten in dif­fer­ent parts of the state.” Now, with primary chal­lenger Matt Bev­in hit­ting him on waste­ful spend­ing, he’s avoided the sub­ject. “You have to be more care­ful what you say these days,” Jen­nings said.

But if Mc­Con­nell wins the nom­in­a­tion, he’s ex­pec­ted to talk more about his re­cord de­liv­er­ing for the state. Mc­Con­nell’s soft spot in his last elec­tion was in east­ern Ken­tucky, where he lost nu­mer­ous coal-pro­du­cing counties by double-di­gits, even as Mitt Rom­ney won the sur­round­ing dis­trict with 75 per­cent of the vote in 2012. Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign has been ag­gress­ively ty­ing Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes to Pres­id­ent Obama’s en­ergy policies, but he’ll also need to shore up his own sup­port in coal coun­try. One Mc­Con­nell strategist lamen­ted that House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers, R-Ky., gets all the cred­it for money ear­marked to the im­pov­er­ished dis­trict, over­shad­ow­ing Mc­Con­nell’s role.

In ad­di­tion, Mc­Con­nell strategists are con­cerned about his stand­ing in the counties sur­round­ing Fort Knox, where he touted his work fend­ing off cuts in the last cam­paign — cuts that later be­came real­ity, with its com­bat bri­gade stripped and thou­sands of tank per­son­nel elim­in­ated.

“How many Demo­crats voted for Mc­Con­nell in the past be­cause they un­der­stood the need for pork, un­der­stood his abil­ity to get the gov­ern­ment to de­liv­er? Now there’s con­cern there will be a dropoff,” the Mc­Con­nell strategist said.

As the es­tab­lish­ment le­gis­lat­ors be­come more com­fort­able as­sert­ing their prerog­at­ives, they face a crit­ic­al ver­dict from their core voters in these up­com­ing con­tests. At stake: Wheth­er we’ll see mem­bers of Con­gress run­ning on their ex­per­i­ence and clout again.

“Re­pub­lic­an primary voters, by and large, aren’t in­ter­ested in re­ward­ing fed­er­al of­fice­hold­ers who are good at spend­ing tax dol­lars,” said Barney Keller, spokes­man for the Club for Growth, the lead­ing out­side group en­for­cing the fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive line. “They’re in­ter­ested in re­ward­ing of­fice­hold­ers who are good at cut­ting spend­ing and lim­it­ing the size and scope of gov­ern­ment.”

What We're Following See More »
$618 BILLION IN FUNDING
By a Big Margin, House Passes Defense Bill
20 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."

Source:
SUCCEEDS UPTON
Walden to Chair Energy and Commerce Committee
22 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Senators Looking to Limit Deportations Under Trump
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.

Source:
REQUIRES CHANGE IN LAW
Trump Taps Mattis for Defense Secretary
1 days ago
BREAKING

Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.

Source:
MEASURE HEADED TO OBAMA
Senate OKs 10-Year Extension of Iran Sanctions
1 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login