How They Learned to Start Worrying and Stop Appropriating

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 17 2010 3:14 AM

How They Learned to Start Worrying and Stop Appropriating

The omnibus spending bill died in the Senate last night, and the death was a long time coming. It started to bleed in 2006, when a series of rule changes and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act were passed, opening up the process by which bills were marked up to public scrutiny. It got a good hard kick in December 2009, when President Obama signed that year's omnibus, but only after an angry speech declaring that the bill had to "mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability," and it got another kick after the midterms when Republican senators agreed to an intra-caucus ban on earmarks.

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David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Finally, the omnibus had a grenade strapped to it on March 11, 2010. That was when the Senate Appropriations Committee stated its policy on earmarks for this year. Part of that policy:

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As part of its website, the Committee provides a central webpage where the public and the media can access each Senator's requests, once they have been submitted.

Tick, tick, boom. When the omnibus was released this week, so were the individual requests made by Republican senators. Remember, since they had put the earmarks requests in, most of these senators had signed on to the  moratorium in a closed-door vote. But in the past, they would have been able to vote against the bill, expecting it to pass anyway, and escaped real consequences for putting the earmarks in. They had, after all, hashed out these deals for months, in committees, alongside Democrats. This year, Republicans had to face down reporters throwing the earmark requests back at them, and pointing out that some senators, like Orrin Hatch , responded to the moratorium by actually removing their earmarks from the omnibus.

This was a totally untenable situation. Mitch McConnell had requested earmarks for Kentucky in the omnibus. When the bill was actually introduced, McConnell acted in tandem with Jim DeMint to destroy it. DeMint requested that the entire omnibus be read in the Senate, which would have consumed around 50 hours of vanishing floor time. McConnell played the other side of this, offering a continuing resolution to fund the government for two months, something that the Senate could pass to cut off DeMint.

This bill is so enormous it took the Government Printing Office two days to print it. It spends more than half a billion dollars a page. It runs just under 2,000 pages. And it’s got more than a billion dollars in it for the Democrat health care bill that an ever-growing number of Americans want to repeal, not fund. This is exactly the kind of thing the American people voted against in November. It’s unbelievable, really. Just a few weeks after the voters told us they don’t want us rushing major pieces of complicated, costly, far-reaching legislation through Congress, we get this.

And one month after McConnell found religion on earmarks in general, and supported the moratorium championed by DeMint, McConnell found religion on his earmarks, and supported the antidote to them favored by Jim DeMint.

My first take on the omnibus bill, and on these Republican stumbles that happened because of the bill, didn't really explain what would happen if the bill was withdrawn. That was because omnibus bills aren't withdrawn like this, just like appropriations bills aren't usually stymied and fumbled for the entirety of legislative sessions. It was also because, until yesterday, there was some advantage for Republicans getting money sent back to their districts. Every House Republican voted against the stimulus bill, for example, but plenty of Republicans participated in ribbon-cutting ceremonies or factory walk-arounds in places that got stimulus cash.

We should have see this coming, though. The increasing transparency of the earmark process was going to make it tougher for Republicans to support this bill and get away with it. There is nothing -- literally, nothing -- that currently motivates most Republicans to send money back home. Look at what's happened with the Appropriations Committee in the House. It was big news that Hal Rogers, a proud earmarker in the past, scored the chairmanship over non-earmarker Jack Kingston. The under-the-radar news was that Republicans were having a hell of a time filling out the rest of the committee.

Michael Franc, a congressional scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told National J ournal that at two separate orientation conferences—one at Harvard University and the other at Heritage—informal surveys of 49 of the 85 incoming GOP freshmen revealed not one who identified Appropriations as his or her No. 1 committee choice. "They all saw it as a foreign entity," Franc said.

[Rep. Jim] Jordan says that the leadership is having trouble finding freshmen willing to serve on Appropriations, an unheard-of circumstance that suggests, at least for the time being, that spending and the perks that historically have come with it are radioactive.

It's extremely important that earmarking has become a more transparent process, and that it's now easy to call out members for their requests before bills are voted on. Look at the context, though. Earmarks are only the easiest way to nail members for doing what has never really been controversial -- appropriating. Republican voters, and a considerable number of independents, don't want their representatives to shuffle around money anymore. The aggressive centralized government of 2009, pumping money into states and districts, is gone, and there's no political will to recreate it.

If a two-month continuing resolution passes, as Republicans now want, it would fall to the new Republican House to create a budget very soon. That means the new Budget chairman, Paul Ryan, will get the opportunity to start cutting back the budget along the lines of the roadmap he's been talking about since 2009. And there's no question anymore as to whether Republicans will have the determination to make cuts, or whether transparency and exposure will keep them honest about this.

Photo of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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