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End of Earmark Ban Is Unlikely

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surprised many colleagues when he agreed to an earmark moratorium in November 2010.

“He can count,” the lawmaker said. “That is the Mitch McConnell I know.”

McConnell’s spokesman pointed to his vote, and that of other GOP leaders, in favor of a permanent earmark ban amendment and to his speech in November 2010 in which he declared he had heard voters’ discontent and pledged to lead by example on “changing the way we do business, even on things we have defended in the past, perhaps for good reason.”

But since that speech, McConnell has not publicly weighed in on the debate other than voting for earmark-limiting amendments offered by other Senators.

The Senate GOP adopted a temporary ban for the current Congress after House Republican leaders made the move. But questions remain if the moratorium will be made permanent, given that champions continue to press for votes in the Senate.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have pledged to take every opportunity to force a vote on a proposal to make the current two-year moratorium permanent. A possible vote could come this week in connection with the surface transportation bill on the Senate floor.

The Senate voted earlier this month, 40-59, against making the ban permanent, with most GOP leaders (except for Blunt) supporting the proposal. Overall, seven Democrats voted for the ban and 13 Republicans voted against it.

Even without an amendment, what Senate GOP leaders decide could be dictated by the House GOP position and the posture of the next president. President Barack Obama opposes Congressional earmarks.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) “is not going to allow earmarks, so the question is moot,” one senior Republican aide said.

Senate Democrats are also not all on the same page regarding earmarks, but their top leaders all support going back to allowing Member-directed spending.

Earmarks have also suffered from recent scandals, which made the term “a dirty word,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Lobbyists and lawmakers have gone to jail in recent years for linking campaign contributions to earmarks.

But there are still some GOP old bulls who believe earmarks should come back.

“I supported the moratorium to clean up the earmark process and to help as a part of the leadership gain consensus within our caucus, so I supported that,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who served as Republican Conference chairman before stepping down from leadership at the beginning of this year.

“But I’m still not ready permanently, to tell some Tennessean who comes and says to me: ‘What are you going to do about the Center Hill Dam, which is unsafe and which, if it fails during a flood, will put four feet of water into the city of Nashville?’ I’m not comfortable saying to them, ‘Well, all I can do about it is give you President Obama’s telephone number,’” he said.

But, sensing their momentum, earmark foes hope that the more they bring the issue up, the more political pressure will come to bear.

“I think [that] to vote against a moratorium on earmarking would be a very dangerous vote,” McCaskill said at a press conference last week.

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