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January 26, 2008

Progress On Pork From The GOP

The Republican retreat at Greenbrier has produced the first signs that House leadership wants to rescue the party's credibility on fiscal discipline. John Boehner and the pork crusaders dragged the rest of the caucus almost literally kicking and screaming to challenge the Democrats to a one-year moratorium on all earmarks. It's not perfect, but it's a start:

House Republicans called on Friday for “an immediate moratorium” on earmarking money for pet projects. They urged Democrats to join them in establishing a bipartisan panel to set strict new standards for such spending.

As an interim step, House Republican leaders said, they will insist that all House Republicans follow standards to eliminate “wasteful pork-barrel spending.”

Republicans set forth their intentions in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The letter reflects a fragile consensus reached Friday after more than two hours of impassioned debate among House Republicans, who met behind closed doors at their annual conference at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Democrats won control of the House in 2006 with promises to end the Republican “culture of corruption.” House Republican leaders hope to seize the initiative on the issue, which they believe resonates with millions of voters.

Boehner and activists like Jeff Flake wanted a unilateral moratorium on earmarks, but that got shot down by a caucus fearful of losing the balance of power. Many didn't want to address pork at all, but the majority of House Republicans have slowly come to understand that their years of larding appropriations with self-serving projects has ruined their credibility with small-government conservatives -- and dented overall contributions as a result. Few are willing to accept their arguments to represent cleaner and smaller government without some dramatic moves to repair the damage already done.

Will the Democrats take up the challenge? Boehner's letter requests an answer by the end of the Democratic retreat, which will be in less than two weeks. So far the response has been minimal, but a spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi reminded the media that the Democrats lowered the number of earmarks during their control of Congress. They did -- they lowered it from a peak of over 13,000 earmarks to 11,700 in the FY2008 budget, which isn't exactly impressive as reforms go. They also violated their own supposed reforms by allowing airdropped and non-legislative earmarks, which accounted for 90% of the earmarks in the omnibus spending bill.

If that will be the sum total of the Democratic response, the Republicans have a winning issue -- f they stick to their guns. In the event Pelosi fails to meet the challenge, Republicans will instead begin adhering to new standards of behavior:

  • No projects named after the earmarker -- That means that Republicans will not follow Charlie Rangel's lead and spend $6 million on the Monument to Me.

  • Any earmark has to have full disclosure in legislative text and no airdropped earmarks in conference reports -- This allows the House to challenge earmarks through the amendment process, and ensures transparency. That's one of the "reforms" the Democrats passed and then completely ignored in the very first budget they produced.

  • No "front groups" -- Earmarks have to reveal the actual end recipient of the money, another step towards transparency.

  • Any earmarks have to be accompanied by a written justification of the use of federal funds, which then will be published before the vote in the Congressional Record -- Well, this will make for interesting reading. How will James Oberstar justify his walking paths if the Democrats follow suit? This alone could embarrass Representatives into reducing earmarks.
  • Boehner has done a great job in pressing the Republican caucus for real change. This may not be what porkbusters want as a solution, but it isn't a bad start. It puts pork on the table as a real issue, and it forces the House Democrats to respond. The Democrats will likely deride this as a stunt, but it pushes the envelope a little farther in the direction of reform -- and that's worthwhile, as a start.


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