Congressional Democrats did an admirable job of purging pork barrel projects — also called earmarks — from spending bills that were left unfinished when Republicans were ousted from power last fall. They had to do something, given all their campaign rhetoric about those fiscally feckless Republicans. But whether they can for long hold the line on earmarks is doubtful, given the party in power’s propensity to pork out.
The true test isn’t what Democrats did right out of the starting gate, when they knew the American people were watching, but how they will operate over the long haul, when the public’s anger over earmarks subsides and attention shifts elsewhere. So far, on that front, the signals are mixed.
We were heartened to read a recent report that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., might try keeping fiscal 2008 spending bills pork-free. If he’s serious, and succeeds, it could mark a turning point in the war against wasteful federal spending. But success is far from certain, given the appetite most members of Congress — and their constituents — have for homestate pork.
“Eliminating (earmarks) altogether is still in the discussion stage, sources said, but the prospect has triggered widespread concern over the potential for another earmark-free fiscal year,” CongressDaily reported last week. Obey is feeling pressure not just from Democrats looking to cash in on majority status, but from Republicans who’ve made a clean break from the party’s fiscally conservative roots.
During a recent meeting, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, said the fight against earmarks may have gone too far. “I think that we have worked ourselves into a frenzy on the subject and when that happens Congress historically overreacts,” Kingston said. If Democrats want bipartisan backing for their bills, they’ll have to grease the skids with the accustomed giveaways, he warned. “The problem is you need Republicans to pass the bill and Republicans need their pork-barrel projects the same way Democrats always did,” Kingston said.
That’s one of the most candid admissions of how Washington really works that we’ve heard — at least from a sitting member of Congress. And it’s nauseating. If Republicans ever want to regain credibility as deficit hawks, they ought to keep Kingston and his ilk under wraps.
Many Democrats also hope the aversion to earmarks is short-lived, no doubt. And it has lobbyists in a tizzy. One of them told CongressDaily that eliminating earmarks from House spending bills would “run this train right into an embankment.” But that’s one train wreck the taxpayers who fund this spoils system might like to see.
Obey probably is just toying with the idea. In March, for instance, we read that he was entertaining requests from colleagues to push back a deadline for inserting fiscal 2008 earmarks. Apparently, many members are confused by new House rules requiring they disclose their sponsorship of a pork project and declare that neither they nor their spouse stands to financially benefit from it.
This suggests to us the new rules aren’t a serious impediment to porking out, but simply a way for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats to seem to be doing something about it until the storm blows over.
Trying to shame the shameless is futile.
“The way this place works, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end we didn’t want to put any earmarks in,” Obey said. “I can’t tell you if we’re going to have earmarks or not until I see what the hell they look like, until I see what mood the House is in, what mood the Senate is in.”
If such decisions are made based on the “mood” of members, and Obey and other leading Democrats don’t impose fiscal discipline from above, pork will be back on the congressional menu later this year, and in a very big way.