Anti-Earmark Push Lives On

McCain, House GOP to Meet

Posted February 11, 2008 at 6:39pm

House conservatives continue to push for a unilateral GOP earmark moratorium, arguing that Republican lawmakers should align their policies with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) now that he has emerged as the presumed Republican presidential nominee.

McCain is expected to speak Wednesday to House Republicans as he continues his efforts to reach out to factions of the party that have fought with him on immigration, campaign finance and a host of other issues.

McCain has vowed to veto bills with any earmarks in them as part of an anti-pork crusade on the campaign trail, but his fervor for fiscal purity has yet to be matched by his Republican Congressional colleagues.

“We’re going to have a presidential candidate who is going to veto bills with earmarks in it,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading proponent of a unilateral moratorium. “We’re going to be the anti-earmark party, like it or not.”

Flake said a lot of rank-and-file Members want to go further than GOP leadership has been willing to go and are considering petitioning for a vote on a unilateral moratorium by the full Conference. Fifty signatures are needed to force a vote, and it could prove to be embarrassing if the full Republican Conference ultimately voted to keep thousands of earmarks.

Flake said Republicans helped create the explosion in earmarks, and voters know that. “They won’t be back until we fix it,” he said.

Other conservatives agree with Flake that the Conference should take a bolder stand on the issue now that McCain is the presumptive nominee.

“House Republicans would do well to embrace a Republican-only moratorium and give the American people a choice this fall,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), noting McCain’s emergence.

The subject of earmarks was a major topic at the Conservative Political Action Conference, with conservatives including Pence and Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) pushing for a moratorium.

“We must encourage Republicans in Congress to show America that Republicans are different — dramatically different than Democrats who defend the status quo,” Hensarling told CPAC. “I call upon all of my Republican colleagues to join me in an earmark moratorium, to end earmarks as we know them, to only request funding for projects that serve the national interest and that truly comport with our vision of constitutional and limited government.”

A conservative House aide said it would be preferable for House leaders to take up the issue of a unilateral moratorium without needing a letter, although a letter has been under consideration.

“Ideally in any earmark discussion, all guns in the Republican Conference should be fired at the Democrats,” the aide said.

The aide predicted that McCain will hammer earmarks hard all year given that it is one of the few front-page issues other than the war in Iraq on which he and grass-roots conservatives march in sync.

“That’s a winning issue, as long as they can’t prove that you are being two-faced about them,” the aide said. “I’d rather be on the same page now than having this squabble in September. It’ll be a nightmare.”

So far, House GOP leaders have tried to balance the practical considerations of many individual lawmakers who want to keep their hometown earmarks with the broader political imperative of looking tough on spending and restoring the party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility.

GOP leaders so far have embraced a short-term earmark moratorium that would last only as long as it would take a bipartisan panel to come up with a reform plan. But that moratorium could last as little as a few weeks — making it more of a timeout than a moratorium — and the GOP has not yet shown a willingness to forgo its earmarks unless Democrats also agree to do so. Given that Democrats have all but ignored the GOP request, the ball is effectively in the Republicans’ court. Do they up the ante and pledge to give up their earmarks in the name of fiscal responsibility — in sync with McCain’s anti-pork crusade and President Bush’s call to cut earmarks in half — or do they keep trying to paint Democrats as big porkers while quietly continuing to secure thousands of earmarks themselves?

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said McCain’s emergence will “increase pressure on the House Democratic leadership” to join GOP calls for earmark reform. He also said he saw no conflict between the House GOP position and McCain’s vow to nuke all earmarks.

“The only thing standing in the way of comprehensive earmark reform is Democrats,” Steel said.

“I think the ball is firmly in the Democratic leadership’s court on this issue,” he said. “We will continue using all of the tools in the minority in the House in forcing Democrats to join us in working on this issue.”

Appropriators, not surprisingly, are strongly resisting a unilateral moratorium.

“I think if you do that it’s almost like unilateral term limits,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), an appropriator who has co-authored a bill that would create an earmark-reform panel and halt earmarks until reforms are made. “I don’t know that the political posturing would be worth the substantive loss. ”

Fellow appropriator Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said that the current Republican game plan is fine — putting pressure on Democrats by calling for a moratorium and a bipartisan study committee — and he ridiculed a unilateral moratorium.

“I think that would be stupid,” he said. “You don’t unilaterally disarm yourself.”

Simpson said most earmarks are not wasteful. “What bothers me is all the rhetoric … everyone is talking about. They’ve now convinced people that earmarks equal wasteful spending. A very small amount are wasteful spending.”

Agreeing to a yearlong moratorium would cede Congress’ constitutional authority to direct spending, and “that suggests that all the wisdom lies in the White House,” Simpson said.

Flake, meanwhile, is warning both parties that unless there is a moratorium, he is planning to amp up his attempts to kill earmarks on the floor. “I guarantee this year there will be many, many, many more amendments on the floor, on both Republican and Democratic earmarks,” he said. “If they want to deal with that in an election year. …”