Pork Moratorium Only Mostly Dead?

House Republicans had an opportunity to take a bold stand on pork by declaring a unilateral moratorium on earmarking in 2008. Instead, they offered one in conjunction with the Democrats, who scoffed at the notion of ending the bacon ride for even a single year. Porkbusters decried the lost opportunity for Republicans in building a message of clean government and real transparency.
Jim DeMint has taken up the cause in the upper chamber instead. He plans on introducing legislation that will force the moratorium on the entire Congress:

Hoping to bring the House fight over earmark reform to the Senate, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will propose a full one-year moratorium on considering bills with earmarks as part of the fiscal 2009 budget resolution, the lawmaker said Monday.
DeMint, who will discuss the moratorium during today’s weekly GOP luncheon, said he believes his proposal could create the political room needed to bring reform to the process.
“Let’s get real. Even Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Calif.] over in the House says ‘We’re not going to fix it while we’re doing it,’” DeMint said, adding that “the only way we’ll fix it is if we say ‘Let’s go cold turkey for a year.’ The best thing we could do this year is come up with some good reform ideas.” Waxman recently agreed to suspend the use of earmarks, one of the few Democrats who have joined with Republicans on the issue.

DeMint will propose an amendment on the upcoming budget resolution. It would force the Senate to go on record opposing or supporting the moratorium, an unpleasant prospect in an election year. If passed, the amendment would make any bill with earmarks, as defined by the Senate, out of order. That includes appropriations and authorizations, cutting down on the potential work-arounds.
Will the Senate pass the bill? Probably not. They may not even get all of the Republicans to vote yes. Ted Stevens and Thad Cochran would be two likely nay votes. John McCain would probably fly back to DC to cast a yes vote, though, and that kind of pressure might push more Republicans into supporting it. McCain could also use the vote to highlight a key difference between himself and Barack Obama if Obama either skips the vote or votes to oppose it.
It’s time to contact your Senators. Let them know that the voters have tired of seeing Congress use our money to protect their incumbencies. Call 202-224-3121 and make your case politely and in detail. Support DeMint and other leaders on pork reform and help force Congress into more responsible and accountable governance.

Why The House GOP Needs To Be Bold On Earmarks

Over the last few weeks, many of us in the conservative blogosphere have urged House Republican leadership to offer a bold agenda on earmarks and corruption. We advised them to adopt a unilateral moratorium on pork; they declined. We campaigned to get Jeff Flake, a credible reformer, onto the Appropriations Committee; they selected Jo Bonner instead.
Today, Rick Renzi reminds us why the GOP needs to get bold and take big leaps instead of baby steps on reform:

Republican Rep. Rick Renzi was indicted Friday on charges of extortion, wire fraud, money laundering and other matters in an Arizona land swap scam that allegedly helped him collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs.
A 26-page federal indictment unsealed in Arizona accuses Renzi and two former business partners of conspiring to promote the sale of land that buyers could swap for property owned by the federal government. The sale netted one of Renzi’s former partners $4.5 million. …
The indictment accuses Renzi of using his position as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee to push the land swaps for Sandlin, who was also charged. It comes after a lengthy federal investigation into the land development and insurance businesses owned by Renzi’s family.
The extensive legal document says Renzi refused in 2005 and 2006 to secure congressional approval for land swaps by two unnamed businesses if they did not agree to buy Sandlin’s property as a part of the deal.

Renzi has not yet had his day in court, and is presumed innocent until proven guilty to the satisfaction of a jury. However, Renzi’s problems have been well known for months, and he’s not the only member of the House GOP caucus with these kinds of problems. Jerry Lewis and John Doolittle both remain under investigation by the FBI for allegations of corruption, and both are known for their pork habits. Lewis is ranking member on the Appropriations Committee.
The Republicans face another cycle where scandals will dominate the elections. In 2006, various corruption and personal-conduct scandals helped strip the GOP of its majority after 12 years in office. In 2007, few members understood the rupture of trust that they needed to heal, and continued to pork up bill after bill along with the Democrats.
Voters will not trust Republicans until they can prove two things: that they have learned their lesson, and that they are significantly different from the Democrats in responsible leadership. Bold moves like unilateral moratoriums and the promotion of tough-minded reformers can help make that argument. Incremental measures such as taken by the Republicans at Greenbrier may help improve the oversight on earmarks, but they don’t address the bigger issue of public trust — which Renzi’s 35-count indictment highlights.

The Road Not Taken

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Perhaps when the elections of 2008 have finished, Republicans will not have reason to ponder what might have been. They may find a voice and a message that will carry them to victory, at least in the House, where that remains possible. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, they may have occasion to consider that refrain by Robert Frost and wonder on what could have been:

House Republicans have been taunting Democrats for turning down their offer to eliminate spending earmarks, and Democrats reply that the GOP isn’t serious. The Republicans seem intent on proving that Democrats are right, as GOP leaders showed last week in denying Arizona’s Jeff Flake a seat on the Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Flake is the scourge of earmarks and the last person Members of either party want on Congress’s main spending committee. He would have been a whistle-blower for taxpayers, in particular against the powerful Democrats who get the most earmarks now that they are in the majority, such as Pennsylvania’s Jack Murtha. But Republican spenders couldn’t tolerate someone who would call out their pork too.

With Roger Wicker getting a mid-term promotion to the Senate, the House GOP caucus had an opportunity to take the road less traveled — in fact, hardly traveled for generations. They had an opportunity to put some teeth behind their rhetoric on pork by appointing Jeff Flake to Appropriations. His downside? Insufficient loyalty; Republicans had served as targets for Flake’s anti-pork ire as well as Democrats.
Jo Bonner’s appointment doesn’t mean that the world has ended, either. Bonner has an atrocious RePork Card rating, as the WSJ notes, and his previous votes on Charlie Rangel’s Monument to Me doesn’t create a lot of confidence at the start. Those who know Bonner believe him when he states that he will adhere to the new GOP guidelines on pork, an improvement over what preceded it — nothing — but not the unilateral rejection of pork that activists desired. Bonner deserves a chance to prove himself, and the acknowledgment from House GOP leadership that he will do so at least shows more seriousness on this issue.
However, in order to clean up Congress and to atone for the Republican role in the pork explosion over the past decade, the House GOP needs to have a lot more people rejecting pork altogether. If the entire caucus and party staged a unilateral moratorium on the corrosive practice, they could turn that into a message that resonates among an electorate that has soured on Congress to a historical degree — in which only 13% of Americans approve of the branch of government that most closely represents themselves.
The Republicans need to take the road less traveled. In the end, it would make all the difference.

Two GOP Members, Two Pork Perspectives

Today I had an opportunity to speak to two members of House Republican leadership on Heading Right Radio. Thaddeus McCotter heads the Republican Policy Committee, and talked about the role of the policy committee, but also about the role of earmarks and the need for reform. He feels that Jo Bonner’s appointment to Appropriations supports the GOP’s efforts at earmark reform, assuring us that Bonner understands the need for reform and will provide as much leadership as Jeff Flake could have in the same role. McCotter talked at length about how we need to make policy interesting and engaging for voters.
On the other hand, Paul Ryan didn’t hide his disappointment over Bonner’s appointment. The ranking member of the House Budget Committee thinks highly of Bonner but agrees with me that the House GOP missed a critical opportunity to establish credibility on reform. We agreed also that pork-barrel reform will resonate with voters in the Congressional election — which Duane “Generalissimo” Patterson rejected — and that the GOP needs a big message for the upcoming elections.
Both men agreed on the failure of the House to vote on the FISA bill, and were quite impassioned about the subject. Be sure to listen to the whole show on the player on the sidebar or on the link above.

The Opacity Of Obama

Barack Obama may find that overpromising and underdelivering will leave openings for political opponents to score real points, especially when the opponent has a clear record from which to punch. Obama has tried to argue that he has the most transparency between Hillary and himself on earmarking, but compared to John McCain, that sounds like damnation through faint praise:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is on track to become the Democratic presidential nominee, and he’s getting the attention his accomplishment deserves. Thursday, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, and the Republican National Committee treated Obama like the front-runner he is and attacked him — for not being transparent when it comes to disclosing his earmark requests. …
In the year Obama has been running for president, he has made government transparency a central campaign pledge. That was his strategic decision. But there are consequences when you campaign saying you would do one thing as president, but don’t do it as a senator.
One might guess that Obama is a model of disclosure. He is not. He has been improving. But he has gaps, and Thursday’s blasts from the Republicans showed they have no reluctance to exploit an Obama weakness. … The Obama response has been that they disclose more than Clinton, a reply I think shows calculation, not conviction. The goal for Obama is not just to stay a step ahead of Clinton. Now he’s got to deal with McCain.

This will be a critical point in the upcoming election. Barack Obama has run on the message that he wants to change Washington politics. Indeed, “hope” and “change” have been almost all we’ve heard from the Obama campaign, and his success in these themes show just how much the American electorate agrees that DC has to change its methods of operation.
But who will be the candidate who can deliver that change? Will it be the Senator who promised transparency in earmarks but didn’t deliver, not even in the short time he’s been in Washington? Or will it be the Senator who doesn’t earmark at all and promises to veto any appropriations bills that have earmarks?
Obama promises a lot on transparency, and on occasion, he has delivered — as he did on the Coburn-Obama Act that created a federal database of government expenditures. McCain, on the other hand, has always delivered on earmarks, fighting them and eschewing them entirely. Obama may be better than Hillary Clinton, but that just puts him with 75% of his colleagues in the Senate. McCain provides a stark contrast to business as usual.

A Fumble On Earmark Reform

I’ve written several posts about the opening on the House Appropriations Committee that came from Rep. Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) appointment to the Senate to fill Trent Lott’s open seat. The House GOP had an opportunity to ensure that their commitment to end pork-barrel spending got taken seriously by appointing a porkbuster to the post. Jeff Flake would have delivered that message, as his record on earmark reform is unmistakable.
Instead, the GOP selected Jo Bonner (R-AL), a person whose record on pork reform equals that of … Steny Hoyer, John Doolittle, and James Moran:

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) has been selected to fill the appropriations panel seat vacated by ex-Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), several GOP sources said Thursday.
GOP leaders faced a pool of seven House lawmakers, including the chairman of the House campaign committee who ran against two politically vulnerable members, and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was backed by the anti-earmark community and conservative blogs.
Bonner’s selection is a safe move, given his membership in the conservative Republican Study Committee and that he is filling a seat vacated by a fellow southerner.

Bonner has a 2% rating from the Club for Growth on its RePork Card. That means that Bonner voted for 1 out of 50 pork reform bills in 2007. Bonner is no stranger to earmarking. While totals are difficult to come by, thanks to the 110th Congress’ rulebreaking on earmark transparency,he has at least $4.5 million in earmarks in the defense bill and a half-million in the Labor/HHS/Education appropriation as well.
House Majority Leader John Boehner noted that Bonner supports a moratorium on earmarks, as well as the unilateral reforms that the GOP caucus has promulgated for this year’s budget process. The moratorium only comes into effect, however, if the Democrats agree to it. Except for a high-profile endorsement from the very liberal Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Democrats have taken a pass. The House Republican caucus has rejected a unilateral moratorium, which leaves Bonner free to pursue earmarks — and worse, keeps a real watchdog off of the Appropriations panel.
The House GOP caucus has a tough election year ahead. If they want a message that gives voters a reason to vote for Republicans rather than just against Democrats, they could do a lot worse than to campaign on ending the source of personal corruption on Capitol Hill. That will take real risk and real courage by unilaterally declaring that the Republican Party will no longer participate in the earmarking process that buys contributors and illegitimately extends federal power, and in appointing activists to key positions to make sure that earmarks get opposed all the way through the process.
They could win with these kinds of bold moves. The half-measures they have offered thus far will not impress enough people to carry them to victory. The appointment of Jo Bonner doesn’t even qualify as a half-measure, but looks like business as usual.
UPDATE: Others commenting on this fumblaya:
Mark Tapscott
Andy Roth
Rob Neppell
Tim Phillips

Bush’s Pork Focus Not Popular On The Hill

Last night’s State of the Union speech garnered plenty of obligatory standing ovations, but the first issue that President Bush featured has generated plenty of grumbles the next day. Neither Republicans or Democrats much cared for the scolding given during the speech on earmarks, nor on the ultimata delivered by Bush in the joint session event. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MI) bristled at the notion that the executive branch could force fiscal discipline on Congress:

While most Republicans praised Monday’s speech, Sen. Thad Cochran, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he opposed the president’s attempts to shrink the number of earmarks or local projects sought by lawmakers in spending bills.
“Congress has the sole power under the Constitution to appropriate funds for expenditure by the federal government,” Cochran said. “I will oppose any measure which in effect transfers this power to the executive branch.” ….
Bush also ordered federal agencies to ignore future earmarks that are “airdropped” into bills without being considered in committees.
“Both Congress and the president must exercise good judgment and restraint” in spending decisions, Cochran said. But he added, “There is no magic legislation or executive quick fix.”

He doesn’t think an executive quick fix exists? Neither do I. However, the EO gives the White House a good starting place. It will force legislators to insert the language into the actual bill — where transparency rules will force them to take ownership of their earmarks.
That, of course, assumes they will follow their rules. Congress simply ignored them on the omnibus bill last month. And if the Democratic response gives any indication, they may still consider them guidelines rather than rules:

Over the last few days, we’ve learned quite a bit about what House Democrats don’t like:
• They don’t like President Bush’s vow during last night’s State of the Union address to veto any appropriations bills that don’t cut earmarks in half.
• They don’t like Bush’s plan to issue an executive order telling agencies to ignore earmarks that aren’t written into the legislative text of spending bills.
• They don’t like the House GOP’s call, made Friday night during the Republican retreat, for both sides to agree to a temporary earmark moratorium.
• They don’t like — or at least haven’t shown any enthusiasm for — Republicans’ proposal for a bipartisan select committee to recommend changes to the earmarking process.

Democrats don’t seem particularly concerned about it, either. Despite the failure of their own caucus to abide by the so-called reforms of which they’ve bragged for months, they have no desire to close the loopholes. They don’t even want to talk about it, let alone take action to reduce the problem.
Remember when the White House explained to the porkbusters that they couldn’t sandbag Congress by issuing the EO for this year’s earmarks? The message apparently got interpreted as a lack of seriousness in addressing the issue on both sides of the aisle. It’s too bad, because President Bush has at least one group in DC worried — K Street.

The Bucks Stop Here, Next Time

George Bush will sign an executive order to defund all earmarks not including in legislative text — for FY2009, not from this year’s omnibus spending bill. The Wall Street Journal reports from sources within the White House than Bush declined to take the immediate action because he felt he had not sufficiently defined his opposition to earmarks in 2007:

We’re told he will tell Congress that he will veto any fiscal 2009 spending bill that doesn’t cut earmarks in half from 2008 levels. He will also report that he is issuing a Presidential order informing executive departments that from now on they should refuse to fund earmarks that aren’t explicitly mentioned in statutory language.
This is progress, though frankly less than we had hoped because Mr. Bush’s executive order will not apply to the fiscal 2008 spending bills that passed late last year. Congress endorsed 11,735 special-interest earmarks worth $16.9 billion in fiscal 2008, yet thousands of these weren’t even written into the actual budget bills. Instead, they were “air-dropped” at the last minute into nonbinding conference reports that serve as advice to federal departments about where to allocate funds. This ruse means that earmarks are able to avoid scrutiny from spending hawks on the House and Senate floor.
We argued in December that Mr. Bush had the legal authority to refuse to fund those this year as well. But in the end we hear he acceded to the argument from Capitol Hill that because he hadn’t made a specific earmark veto pledge last year, he would be sandbagging Congress after the fact and courting its wrath.
The President had, however, said the following last year: “even worse, over 90% of earmarks never make it to the floor of the House and Senate — they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You didn’t vote them into law. I didn’t sign them into law. Yet they’re treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice.” Members in both parties whooped and hollered in approval, even as they could barely contain their self-knowing grins.

This will disappoint the Americans who reached out to the White House to insist that Bush take action to force Congress to obey its own rules. He gave leaders of both parties a clear warning in that statement, but will give them a pass for another year. No one will have “sandbagged” Congress with an EO that applied to this year’s budget, and in fact that sounds like a rationalization that came straight off of Capitol Hill.
It doesn’t demonstrate much courage to put off executive action until the final months of his lame-duck presidency. Allowing the pork projects to stand also won’t help rescue the GOP’s credibility on fiscal discipline. Like it or not, Bush’s actions reflect on the party, and this doesn’t improve its position much. It has all the credibility of a parent who tells Junior that the next time he steals from his neighbors, he’s really, really, really going to be punished.
Really. This time, he means it. Really.
The EO on future action at least sets a line down in the sand which will be somewhat more uncomfortable to erase. It will require a President — Bush or his successor — to actually issue an EO canceling the first and allowing non-legislative pork. That kind of overt act to allow pork-barrel spending will be political suicide, and the Congress that demands it will kill their own credibility along with the president that acquiesces. And next time, neither entity can say they didn’t understand the rules beforehand.
It’s an opportunity lost, but perhaps a baby step in the right direction.

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.

    Why Pork Matters

    I get a lot of e-mail every day, and I try to read it all even though I can’t possibly respond to each message. Most of the messages consist of promotional e-mails, some are spam, and others are personal messages from friends, but occasionally I get earnest questions about topics under discussion that require more than a one-on-one reply. CapQ reader Edward S sent me a question on pork, and why we should consider it such a problem. In part, here is Edward’s question:

    I am a Republican and regular reader of conservative blogs, and I see that the earmarks issue is getting long-term big play as an issue that conservative elected officials ought to do something about. But could you please clarify what you see as the problem: is it that appropriations would be LOWER if there were no earmarks — meaning that the the actual dollar numbers appropriated would be LESS money spent out of the Treasury — or is it that the same money would be spent, but on services and goods chosen by executive branch officials rather than chosen by the legislators?
    For example, in your post today about a school contract, the problem you point to is that the school officials were going to spend the same money, but wanted a different contractor. That’s not the same thing as if the money wasn’t going to be spent at all.
    If what you’re complaining about is legislators making the decision on who actually gets the contract and the money, I have to say I’m not as upset as I am in a situation where the money just wouldn’t be spent at all. In our system of government, isn’t it in principle OK for the legislators to decide who gets the contract? It means that we the people get to vote directly on whether to re-elect people based on how good they are at choosing contractors.

    It’s a great question. Why wouldn’t we want legislators making these decisions, when they have more direct accountability to the voters? After all, the deeper it gets into the bureaucracy, the less control the people have over the money.
    All of that would be true if it weren’t for the way in which earmarks get used. Too often, Representatives and Senators aren’t directing money for the purpose of efficiency or to bypass a bloated bureaucratic process. They’re earmarking to earn credits with political supporters, as the Mary Landrieu case makes quite plain, and as the various Jack Abramoff scandals showed earlier. Either they’re currying favor with state and local officials back home to solidify their own power base, or they’re cutting sweetheart deals with contributors to their campaigns. In almost all cases, the earmarks have a lot more to do with their own interests than those of the people.
    It also reduces the efficiencies of competitive bidding. Almost all earmarks go to some specific entity, which avoids the necessity of competing for a contract or grant. That raises prices and lowers quality no matter how well-intentioned it might be. The procurement bureaucracies have mandates to force competitive bidding that Capitol Hill politicians can bypass through earmarking. The result? Poorer service, higher-priced products, and more waste and mismanagement from the government.
    The worst part of earmarks is that they entrench power in Washington. People like Jack Murtha, Ted Stevens, Robert Byrd, and others gain lifetime sinecures by wielding pork to extort votes and curry favor. Not only does this pervert the legislative process, but it also makes it more difficult to unseat incumbents, some of whom really need replacing. Instead of citizen legislators, it leads to first a professional class of politicians and then an elite whose power cannot be challenged. The only people who have any reasonable chance of success are those who can outspend the incumbents, and that usually means people who can write their own checks.
    Pork perverts self-government. It puts all of the incentives in the wrong places and forces action in the wrong direction. Eliminating the pork in this year’s bills might not save a dime as the agencies will simply receive the money without prior forced allocation. However, by removing the struts of power on which pork rests, we can change the incentives so that forking over huge sums of money to overpowerful bureaucracies becomes a political liability instead of an asset. That’s when we will see politicians focused on eliminating waste, reducing budgets, and shrinking the reach of the federal government.
    Pork matters. Anyone interested in clean government regardless of policy outlook can find common ground for agreement on this point. Small-government advocates should especially see this as the entree to fighting federal expansionism.
    UPDATE: Mark Tapscott kindly links back to this post.