How Republican senators manage to request and oppose earmarks at the same time.

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Dec. 15 2010 5:33 PM

One Last Bite of Pork

How Republican senators manage to request and oppose earmarks at the same time.

Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. John Thune. Click image to expand.
Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. John Thune

In his 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain had a line about senators who earmarked spending bills, and he repeated it like a Zen koan: "I will make them famous," he said, "and you will know their names. You will know their names!"

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

McCain's campaign could have gone better in a number of ways. But that part of his campaign—that promise—has been fulfilled. On Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., became famous. They held a morning presser on the $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill introduced by Democrats, made inevitable by Congress's failure to pass a budget or individual appropriations bills.

"I think this is an outrage," said Cornyn. "But more than being outraged, I think it demonstrates profound disrespect for the American people. The senators and congressmen who are going to be leaving and will never be held politically accountable for this spending, I think, are showing disrespect for those of us left behind to try and clean up the mess."

Cue the mess. Thanks to legislation passed in 2006, and cosponsored by now-President Barack Obama, the names of all senators and representatives who requested earmarks are published in charts made available the same time that the text of spending bills are made available. Reporters, presented with this data, dug through and counted up the earmarks requested by Thune and Cornyn, then asked the senators how it was possible for them to be anti-earmark when they'd requested so many earmarks for projects in their states.

"Those projects were projects that were vetted," said Thune. "I mean, I support those projects. But I don't support this bill, nor do I support the process by which this bill was put together. Most of us voted for a resolution in our conference that [said] we would not support earmarks." Thune allowed himself a laugh at the mounting absurdity of this. "My way of expressing that is to vote against this legislation." He was asked why he didn't just take his earmarks out. "We're going to try and vote this thing down. I don't know how you get 'em out now other than amending the bill."

As far as the anti-earmark movement is concerned, he could have stopped at "I support these projects."

"Oh, those poor people!" said Citizens Against Government Waste's Leslie Paige, speaking through phony tears. "They're being forced to get their earmarks funded! We see a little cognitive dissonance here. It's a bit dispiriting and it's transparent to us what's going on."

Everyone here was playing his or her part in the life cycle of the earmark outrage. It was a little different last year. There was no intra-Republican pledge not to request earmarks. But there was outrage, followed by a vote that pushed through the bill and its earmarks—then, as now, around 0.8 percent of the budget. There was a disappointed president announcing that the omnibus and the earmarks were necessary one last time.

"I expect future spending bills to be debated and voted on in an orderly way and sent to my desk without delay or obstruction so that we don't face another massive, last-minute omnibus bill like this one," said Obama. "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand."

That didn't happen. The Democratic approach to earmarks hasn't changed much. The Republican approach, as demonstrated by Thune, Cornyn, and other Republicans whose requests appear in the omnibus, became a lot like that of Rep. Ron Paul. He requests earmarks, then votes against the spending bills containing the earmarks. If they vote against the omnibus, Thune and Cornyn will be doing just that.

And this is where the "making famous" part comes in. Stopping Republicans from requesting earmarks started with a pledge, but it's enforced by shame and embarrassment. Since the 2008 election, McCain has found an ideal format for humiliating senators and generating stories for reporters who love tales of government waste or screwed-over-consumers. He tweets them. He, and all earmark opponents, look for the stupidest-sounding earmarks and rattle them off like fat jokes.

The oddity today was that none of Cornyn or Thune's requests were particularly silly-sounding. Look at transportation funding. Thune requested $500,000 for "Rapid City Regional Airport Terminal Expansion"; $750,000 for "I-29/I-229 Bridges and Interstate Mainline Reconstruction From Near Tea Exit to North of 69th Street and East to Louise Avenue"; $150,000 for "Ghost Hawk Road Improvements (BIA Route 7 to SD Hwy 18)"; $1 million for "Improvements and 4 R Work to SD 73 in Jackson County"; and $400,000 for something called the "Domestic Violence Building Project." Cornyn requests include $750,000 for "West Ninth Avenue Extension and Overpass Construction, Belton"; $1 million for the "VIA Fredericksburg Road Bus Rapid Transit Corridor"; $3.5 million for "Surface Transportation Improvements on U.S. 287 Business Route, Fort Worth"; $2 million for "Loop 82 Railroad Overpass, San Marcos"; and $500,000 for "the Denton Downtown Improvement Project to upgrade the streets and streetscape."

After this year, under the Republican pledge, Republican senators won't even be permitted to request boring-sounding civic improvements like these. The Ron Paul strategy of high-minded hypocrisy will work for Ron Paul, but not them. Try it, and get embarrassed by the press, just like what happened today.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who co-sponsored (and really championed) that 2006 transparency legislation with Obama, made an Excel spreadsheet of earmarks available on his Web site. In doing so, he warned that it only would help citizens discover the "disclosed" earmarks and not the "billions in undisclosed earmarks." And if you don't disclose, you can't become famous.

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