Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, brag about eliminating earmarks as a key victory in the national anti-government spending movement. But now that election season is in full swing, the dearth of parochial projects raises questions about how Beltway big shots can show voters at home they’re still attentive to local needs.
Politicians who pushed this Congress to ban earmarks are the same people who campaigned on those funds in previous elections. And as Washington, D.C., moves forward in the post-earmark era, seasoned Hill veterans risk looking unconcerned about their constituents’ needs at worst and hypocritical at best.
“I think Tennesseans would think I’d lost my mind if I didn’t come to the United States Senate and speak about what was important to Tennessee,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, who left the GOP leadership team earlier this year.
Alexander was the only Republican Senator of the handful approached for this story who acknowledged the benefits of touting federal projects — regardless of whether they are characterized as earmarks — as part of a re-election bid.
“That would be up to each Senator’s campaign, but I would certainly want the people of Tennessee to know that I remember who elected me and that if you got dirty air in the Smokey Mountains, I’m trying to clean it up,” Alexander said, noting several other state priorities. “I think it’s very important for us not just to be a Senator for the whole nation, but especially to speak out for the needs of [constituents].”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represents a case study of just how far Republicans have shifted on this issue.
The Kentucky Republican, once a champion of earmarks, ran for re-election with 2008 on a series of 30-second television spots tailored to six media markets and the projects he supported in those areas.
Dubbed “Future,” each ad showed the Republican leader speaking directly to the camera and then providing voice-overs for different shots of the Bluegrass State. In Northern Kentucky, he bragged about the regional airport. In Central Kentucky and Louisville, he talked about the University of Kentucky and Louisville University, respectively. He talked about riverfront development in Paducah, Owensboro and Bowling Green.
Between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2010, McConnell sponsored $458 million worth of earmarks, according to the government accountability website LegiStorm.
“I’ve secured millions for Northern Kentucky University, training tomorrow’s workforce and giving them the tools to compete,” the Senator said in one 2008 ad. “I’m Mitch McConnell and I approve this message because creating good jobs and strengthening Kentucky’s economy is my top priority.”
Of course, 2008 was a different time. Republicans across the country were forced to focus on local issues because, nationally, they were being consumed by a Democratic wave election and backlash to the George W. Bush administration. That was also before McConnell stated his No. 1 priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
But the tea party wave of 2010 has provided a different challenge to both parties: Show you’re involved in local issues without bragging about spending taxpayer money.
If lawmakers can’t talk about earmarks, some sources wondered, what can they talk about? This Congress has been considered one of the least productive in recent memory.
“It’s emblematic of a time that obviously has gone by, but the sentiment remains. What those ads all illustrated was that he cared deeply about local entities that these people invested much of their lives in,” said a senior Republican aide of the McConnell ads. “That sentiment doesn’t change, even if the deliverable does.”
Last month, for example, McConnell went to Olive Hill, Ky., to visit a garment factory he helped keep open. The senior Senator assisted by preventing the factory from losing a government contract to a larger company.
But it’s unclear whether those kinds of actions will be enough.
“Whereas before you could say, Congressman X spearheaded the effort to bring dollars to this project, that’s going to be harder,” said a Senate Democratic aide, emphasizing that many local projects are still being funded by the Obama administration.
“Campaigns are going to have to be a bit more creative in terms of taking credit, and then of course, you have the question of hypocrisy, cutting spending and saying ‘no’ versus taking credit,” the Democratic aide continued.
Senate campaigns in 2012, regardless of party, are shying away from playing up local projects.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was one of the leading voices in her party against Congressionally directed spending. And Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, in a tough race in Montana, has released nearly a half-dozen ads playing up his positive personal attributes and Montana roots but not the money he’s brought to the state.
Of the many Republicans approached for this story most focused on anti-spending talking points.
“We’re broke. So that was a different time, and I think people are very sensitive [to the deficit],” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) of ads that GOP Members ran in previous cycles.
“I can tell you that my constituents and others come asking for the federal government to fund projects, but we have to confront them as we have had to confront ourselves with the harsh reality that we’re in a crisis,” added Cornyn, who between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2010 sponsored earmarks worth $416 million.
The campaign chairman said the issue has not come up in larger conversations at the NRSC because “people realize that running on earmarks is probably a losing strategy particularly in this environment.”
Those close to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also said they have not had conversations on how campaigns have evolved and how that might affect their strategy.