On Monday of this week, Senator Mitch McConnell, the big daddy of the Republicans in the Senate cried Uncle while over in the House, Nancy Pelosi vowed to fight on as soon to be minority leader.
Even before all the races have been decided, the Tea Party flexed its political muscle and sent long time establishment Republicans running to the right. While the freshman class was checking into the nation’s capitol the first fight broke out between establishment Republicans and the newly elected Tea Party backed Republicans. The ruckus was raised over whether or not earmarks, hated by Tea Partiers and loved by establishment types on both sides of the aisle, would be the first casualty of the tea party revolt. Senator McConnell and Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye ended last week indicating they both intended to oppose an outright ban on earmarks. The argument they put forth went something like this: “Banning earmarks would empower the Obama administration and weaken Congress when it comes to deciding how federal dollars are spent.”
Huh? Were they really trying to sell the American people on the idea that less money spent by Congress would equal more money spent by the Obama administration? That would be like telling a farmer he can’t get the fox out of his hen house because it will just eat the chickens that are in the yard. If you get rid of the fox all the chickens will be safe. It is important to note here that Senator Inouye and Senator McConnell are two of the biggest earmark offenders in Washington. According to the Washington Post Senator McConnell has requested almost 1billion dollars in earmarks in the last two years alone!
Understanding the budget process in Congress will make your head hurt. But, here is my best shot. Senator McConnell is right when he says the White House can spend money not allocated by Congress. Congress determines the federal budget but money from the budget gets funneled out to the many federal departments who then decide how to spend it. Earmarks tie up some of the money before it gets to the department. For example, if a Senator earmarks ten million dollars for his brother-in-law to study how cow burps contribute to global warming, that ten million dollars has to be spent for that purpose and that purpose alone. If a congressional earmark doesn’t designate the money, the president gets to decide how that money will be spent.
How about this for a solution? If Congress bans earmarks but retains the power to designate how the money is spent by each department it can simply supply only the money necessary for the department to operate and then there won’t be any leftover for the president. Remember this…constitutionally Congress controls the purse strings. Earmarked money has to be accounted for during the budget process or individual departments would run out of money long before the end of the budget year. It seems to me all Congress would have to do to prevent the president from picking up the budgetary scrapes from each department is to simply account for all the money that is allocated to each department and make sure no extra money is approved. Put simply, if money isn’t left laying on the House floor the White House can’t scoop it up.
Another part of McConnell’s argument is that earmarks account for only a very small percentage of the federal budget. Speaking last week at the Heritage Foundation McConnell said, “You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It’s really an argument about discretion.” Granted the money saved on earmarks would equal only about 2% of the federal deficit. But we have start somewhere and besides, earmarking not only adds to the fiscal deficit but also to the character deficit of those holding the purse strings. Earmarks are used as chips in political deal making. If you take away the chips you take away a big part of the deal making and force those who serve in Congress to focus on service to the country instead of merely serving their constituents.
The real story on earmarks is the fact that Tea Party power has now transcended the ballot box and moved into the realm of policy change. The battle between Senator Jim DeMint and Senator McConnell was an important one that had to be won by the Tea Party backed DeMint. Elections have consequences and one of the consequences of the midterms of 2010 is an electorate that is fired up and ready for change. On Monday of this week, Senator McConnell struck his colors in the fight when speaking from the Senate floor he said, “There is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice (earmarks) has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight. And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government.” The Tea Party is partying on!
Conventional establishment political thinking believes true conservative fervor is fine on the campaign trial but must be checked at the door when you move into Washington. President Reagan, “the Gipper,” proved that philosophy to be false when he won back-to-back landslide national elections by refusing to check his conservatism at the door of the White House. The freshman class of 2010 refused to check their principles and this week, and they won a big one for the Gipper.