Mitch McConnell

A leery Senate contemplates life after earmarks

By
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 6:00 am

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) begrudgingly agreed Monday to a Republican moratorium on earmark requests. (Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote by Senate Republicans to self-impose a two-year moratorium on earmark requests, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released a statement indicating his avowed, albeit somewhat conflicted, support for the idea.

“I respect the spirit in which this moratorium has been agreed to and hope it will lead to a better use of taxpayer dollars,” Graham said. “However, I maintain the right to seek funding to protect our national security or where the jobs and economy of South Carolina are at risk. If the Obama Administration and their bureaucrats in the federal agencies take action against the best interests of South Carolina, I will take swift action to correct their wrongs.”

[Congress1] The heart of Graham’s worries is the Port of Charleston, which must be deepened to stay competitive with other ports along the Eastern seaboard, but it could just as easily stand for the pet project of any senator who now must worry about ways to ensure, and take credit for, worthy initiatives in his or her state. With the successful passage of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) earmark moratorium among Senate Republicans — and a likely floor vote today on the question of whether to do away with earmarks in the next Senate altogether — Senate Republicans (and some Democrats who have signed on as well) are now facing tough choices about how to keep spending in check to better serve the national interest while still satisfying their constituents’ short-term needs.

Many of the Republican senators who ultimately signed onto DeMint’s proposal, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — a longtime proponent of earmarks — hardly did so wholeheartedly.

“Make no mistake. I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state,” said McConnell during his announcement Monday that he would vote for the moratorium. “I don’t apologize for them.”

Indeed, for a speech renouncing earmarks, McConnell’s remarks struck some observers as odd for devoting long portions to the “truly vital projects” he has supported over the years in Kentucky. But to Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that seeks to eliminate wasteful subsidies, earmarks and corporate handouts, such difficulties in adapting to a new earmark-less world seem unlikely to begin and end with McConnell.

“There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, I’m sure,” Ellis said. “And certainly there are growing pains and adjustments that come with it.”

Many senators, who are currently quite comfortable with obtaining funding for their state through simple earmark requests, will now have to devise new ways to successfully advocate for and obtain funds for their states. There are positive and negative channels, experts say, through which this might occur.

“One is under the cloak of darkness or underground attempts at getting the agencies to do what you want them to do,” Ellis said. “The other is to work with the executive branch to develop the metrics and systems and create merit-based or competitive formulas for allocating spending.”

When House Republicans enacted an earmark ban this March, for instance, all but four members obeyed the new rule — but many found ways around it.

“There are other ways to indicate one’s preferences without technically earmarking,” said Daniel Schumann, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater transparency in government. “Members can talk to the federal agencies, write them a letter, and ask them to consider certain companies or folks to do certain things. It’s not technically an earmark but it functions in a similar way.”

And when the rules applied only to House members, many simply made subtle requests of their senators.

“There are rules against members of the House lobbying members of the Senate, but as a practical matter there are ways to communicate what your preferences are for earmarks,” Schumann said. “One way to do it is to put in a request even if it’s not granted, because those requests are public. This of course becomes a lot harder if there’s a moratorium in both chambers.”

Another possibility, however, is that the moratorium will help foster a system in which legislators are forced to focus on drawing up more detailed authorizing legislation in the various committees designed to oversee the federal agencies. “One of the benefits of a moratorium is it concentrates the mind,” Ellis said.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who announced yesterday that he was joining Senate Republicans in a self-imposed moratorium on requesting earmarks, remains optimistic about the change.

“I’m hoping to lead by example and show my colleagues that there is life after earmarks,” he told reporters on a conference call devoted to explaining his decision to forgo the practice from now on. Udall was soon subjected to tough questions, however, about how he planned to guarantee grants for research initiatives at Colorado State University that had previously enjoyed his blessing though the earmark process.

“You’re right that I do support what CSU is doing, and there are many steps that can be taken,” Udall said. “I’m going to work with the administration so that when they’re drafting their budgets they’ll include funding for the state’s highways, bridges and roads and I’ll redouble my efforts during the federal grants process to advocate for districts and municipalities in the state. I have a senior staffer who works solely on that process. Ninety-nine percent of the state’s federal funding comes through federal grants and block grants, and I can write a grant bill if any needs go unmet.”

Graham, too, spent the majority of his announcement assuring South Carolinians that he would find alternative ways to address the infrastructure needs of the Port of Charleston, arguing that he still has two options.

“1. Pass Senator DeMint’s proposed legislation reforming the way port studies and harbor deepening are funded,” he said. “Or 2. Press the Obama Administration to include the necessary funding for the port study in their budget submission to Congress.”

If neither of those works, however, Graham made clear he was reserving the right to “use every option at my disposal to ensure funding is made available.”

Giving up earmarks might be painful at times, argues Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the CATO Institute, but it’s necessary if Congress is going to start governing in the national, and not parochial, interest.

“We’re a long way down a road that we shouldn’t be down, in which Congress gives huge authority to the executive branch to decide where money should be spent,” said Harper. “We need bills saying any community with these particular needs should get funding, not my community should get this project.”

The project of ending earmarks, in other words, is tied into a much broader project to increase congressional oversight over federal spending and rein it in in the process.

“[Arguing in favor of earmarks] is just saying we don’t want to do the oversight,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on a conference call on Monday. “Bureaucracies can’t do the spending unless we allow it. We ought to be overseeing every penny the government spends everywhere.”

It’s an ambitious plan, and it just might sink a number of local projects that senators like Graham are still counting on finding a way to get done in their home states.

“Earmarks are the easy, lazy way of doing this stuff,” said Ellis. “Maybe the Charleston project is great, but is it the best? Every port along the East Coast wants to deepen and is undergoing this race to the bottom. Charleston is looking over its shoulder at Savannah, which is looking at Baltimore and Philadelphia. The question isn’t whether it’s in Charleston’s interest, but whether it’s in the national interest. Maybe, but maybe not.”

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Anonymous
Comment posted November 17, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

The SHAMELESS reps’ principal  :  No principal  & power-only !

1.      Anti-DISCLOSE Act VS. Pro-Earmark Ban
It is apparent that the largest form of wasteful spending can arise from the Shadowy Campaign Money offered by the greedy interest group.

2.       The reps & jobs

a. Even when the economy was on the cusp of entire collapse just like Lehman Brothers ahead of the roll-out of stimulus package, it was held hostage by Audacity of Nope, and the time was running out.
Power first said : Nope ! How do we pay for it ?, Just let him go under exactly like Lehman Brothers.

b. It is also important to remember a small business bill that was blocked for weeks by a republican filibuster in the Senate.

c. Power first now says without hesitation : Extend the tax cuts for the greedy until we’re out of this recession, or for the job creation.
Under the failed Bush tax cut for lavish bonus parties, a sole job plan for the reps, the country already saw millions of job cuts.
And hence it’s the right time to ask themselves as to how they can pay for it.

d. Jobs ahead in another Bush era ( = Entire Downfall ) ??
I think D.S. is going to realize vividly how Bush era wrecked economy.

3.      The reps campaigned on their ability to cut spending and balance the budget, so they should be required to make good on that pledge. 

But, the Bush tax cut for the greedy will add an additional $700 billion to the deficit over a decade.
As for the Democrats, sound investments = deficit hike. 
As for the reps, failed giveaway policy = job creation. 

4.      Over the duration of healthcare debate, using the preliminary cost analysis of CBO, the reps opposed the public option stubbornly, but after the release of final score, they have been defiant on the referee.

Inaction cost in relation to health care reform totals $9trillion over the next decade.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that reform will reduce the federal deficit by $143 billion over the next 10 years and as much as $1 trillion during the following decade

5.      In view of Medicare & Social Security : 

“Don’t Let Government Touch Your Medicare & Social Security” 
“We will instead Stomp On Your  Medicare & Social Security” 


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John Bailo
Comment posted November 17, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

Get rid of the earmarks. If specific states want to have “projects” then let those local taxpayers raise property taxes and pay for them. The problem with Earmarks they are a runaway feedback loop. I pull out money from the National revenue for my region, and so you must do the same to balance it…that drives up the overall tax rate and spending. The only way to reduce spending is to make the pain local…right now, requesting earmarks has no negative feedback…which it should.


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WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT
Lack of trust may derail DISCLOSE Act in lame duck
Communication between Dem and GOP offices on bill broke down
By Jesse Zwick 11/9/10

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) criticized the DISCLOSE Act in July, but Democrats hope for her vote on a modified version of the bill. (Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Despite widespread public opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and multiple exhortations by the president for Congress to act, Senate Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican filibuster to pass the DISCLOSE Act, a bill requiring interest groups to name the donors behind their campaign ads, in the months leading up the midterm elections. Next year, when the GOP claims a majority in the House, the odds of passage are slim. “Um, no,” said presumptive House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman when asked if Republicans might introduce a version of the DISCLOSE Act next year.

ShareThe last chance, then, for Congress to put some form of disclosure legislation on the books before the shadowy spending process repeats itself, in grander fashion, in 2012 might be now, the lame-duck session in advance of the swearing-in of the much more Republican 112th Congress in January.

But if the numerical chances of the bill’s passage in the Senate — it will only need the votes of two Republican senators to overcome a filibuster when Congress returns from its campaigning break next week — will never look better, the level of trust and communication between key Democratic and Republican Senate offices typically engaged on the issue of campaign finance stands at a seeming all-time low.

Democrats in leadership are now weighing the idea of stripping the less essential provisions of the DISCLOSE Act — measures to prohibit spending from companies holding government contracts or those exceeding a certain threshold of foreign ownership — as an act of good faith in order the counter Republican qualms about the bill and make one last-ditch effort to pass it. They’ll only do so, however, if they anticipate success, and the current breakdown in negotiations between the key parties is making them wary about the bill’s chances of garnering any GOP support at all.

How has a year’s worth of legislative effort on a popular measure now found itself on the brink of failure, and what might make it still succeed? An understanding of the bill’s chances in the lame-duck session requires a look back at its struggles through Congress and the reasons for the current standstill.

The DISCLOSE Act’s problems began with its personnel. The bill originated in the offices of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), legislators best known for their efforts, as chairmen of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, respectively, to get their fellow Democrats elected. Consequently, it was viewed with suspicion by House Republicans.

“When you immediately go to the two lawmakers who are responsible for getting Democrats elected and say, ‘Please write us the bill,’ a lot of Republicans looked at that and said, ‘Huh, that’s a curious choice,’” said Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates against imposing limits on campaign spending. “It was the chair of the DCCC and former chair of DSCC leading the process. There was no way that was not going to be seen as partisan. From there it just kind of all went downhill.”

With the Senate calendar and key staffers still tied up with health care reform and financial regulation, it fell to the House to get the ball rolling — but House Democrats said the bill’s basic idea never gained traction among Republicans.

“We released a framework to the public four months in advance of introducing the bill and we reached out to specific Republicans who normally engage in campaign finance issues,” said a Democratic aide who worked on the bill. “We never were approached by Republicans to say they’d vote for stripped-down disclosure provisions.”

Only two Republicans — Reps. Ahn Cao (La.) and Mike Castle (Del.) — signaled support for the bill, so House Democrats proceeded to make it something of a wish list. They added provisions barring companies with federal contracts or those exceeding a certain threshold of foreign ownership from spending independently to influence elections. And they also made an exception for longstanding nonprofits — like the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association — that met certain membership requirements.

The result was a bill that arrived fully formed in the Senate at the end of June, but one that also provided ample opportunity to its opponents (or would-be supporters) to hammer it as partisan or unfair. The provisions barring certain companies from spending looked to some like built-in advantages for unions, while the NRA carve-out, as it became known, provided an ironic special-interest twist on a bill meant to be about good government.

When the bill came up for its first Senate vote in July, however, Democrats hoped they could still pressure Republicans with a reputation for past leadership on campaign finance issues — like Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — or newly elected Sen. Scott Brown to cast a vote in favor of the overarching concept of disclosure. But these senators objected to the lack of a committee mark-up or other opportunities to make constructive changes to the bill.

“Unfortunately, the Senate Majority Leader chose to bring forward a bill that doesn’t live up to its title,” Collins wrote in a statement after her first procedural vote against the DISCLOSE Act. “It was drafted by Democrats behind closed doors. No committee hearings were ever held on this legislation; therefore, there never was an opportunity to make any changes to this bill or mark-up in the committee process before we were asked to consider it.”

Democratic aides in the Senate, however, insist they gave Republican senators like Snowe, Collins and Brown every opportunity for input into the bill.

“When I say we offered them a seat at the table it was, literally, ‘Come write the bill with us. Here’s a list of principles and tell us how you’d like to write it,’” said a Democratic staffer who worked on the bill in the Senate. “It could not have been a more welcoming process, but there was very little input offered.” After initial signs of engagement on the issue, Republican offices stopped responding to emails from Democratic staffers. (The offices of Sens. Snowe and Collins also did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)

But by allowing a vote on the same bill that had passed the House and not anticipating the attacks that would be leveled against it, Senate Democrats failed to move the bill and, worse, lost the battle of public perception over whether the bill was a push for transparency or a thinly veiled attempt to sway the outcome of the pending midterm contests in their favor.

By the time the bill was slated to be brought up again in Congress for a vote in late September, it suffered from a breakdown in trust. Both sides realized that the current bill was a nonstarter, but there was no time in the packed legislative schedule to take the multiple days required to introduce a new, stripped-down version. Instead, Democrats urged Snowe and Collins to vote for cloture on the bill as it stood, on the assurance that the Democratic leadership would scrap whatever the senators didn’t like when it came time for debate and amendments. But such a deal would have required the confidence of all parties.

“My understanding — and I’ve talked to both Republican and Democratic offices — is that Democrats were saying, ‘Well, just tell us what you want,’ and Republicans were saying, ‘Tell us how you’ll change it and then we’ll talk,’” said Meredith McGehee, who lobbies for greater transparency in campaign finance for the Campaign Legal Center.

Other campaign finance reform advocates take a more cynical view. “A pared-down version was being discussed in the last round and that wasn’t what the issue was,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at Public Citizen, a citizen lobby group. “The Republicans, down to Collins and Snowe, even though their public denunciations were about unions, none of them ever meant that. All they wanted was anonymous corporate support in 2010 and 2012.”

In either case, the Maine senators, having already decried the bill once, cited their same complaints and voted ‘no’ once again. A vote for cloture was too close to a vote for the bill itself, and moreover, it opened the door to the possibility of Democrats pulling a fast one and passing the bill without amendments, denying them any input and earning them the wrath of the Republican caucus for enabling Democrats to enact their agenda. The bill failed to overcome a filibuster by a single vote.

Now, facing a lame-duck session with a host of pressing items on the agenda — from the START Treaty to an unemployment extension to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — Senate Democratic leaders are skeptical that a disclose-only bill can earn Republican support. On the one hand, it would address the bulk of Republicans’ complaints about the current bill, but on the other hand, trust is so frayed that neither side is able to receive assurances as to the other’s thinking on the issue.

The impending seating of a new Republican senator later this month, special election winner Mark Kirk of Illinois, has added a new element of suspense to the mix. While his arrival raises the bar of Republican support required to proceed with debate, some campaign finance experts see in Kirk the kind of moderate voice who spoke in favor of better disclosure laws on the campaign trail and could champion a stripped-down bill as a triumph of good, clean government over the larded Democratic bill. But others doubt that casting a vote against the wishes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who has made a personal mission out of rolling back campaign finance laws — is high on the to-do list of the incoming freshman senator. (Requests for comment from Kirk’s office were not returned by the time of publication.)

Even if the bill is unlikely to pass, argue some advocates, at least Democrats could finally get Republicans to go on the record definitively on the issue of disclosure.

“Bring up a bill with just the disclosure provisions and take away a number of arguments that we feel are not correct but others have used to make excuses about not voting for it,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21.

Whether the benefits of a symbolic vote on disclosure outweigh the importance of floor time that could be spent on other issues, however, remains an open question. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office said that Reid will defer to Schumer on the content of the bill and that the Democratic leadership has not yet reached any decisions on what it will push in the lame-duck session.

But Holman, speaking on the eve of the election, was less hopeful. “If the results are a fairly sweeping Republican victory,” he said, “then I would fully expect the lame-duck Congress to honor the tradition of doing lame-duck work.”

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Anonymous
Comment posted November 18, 2010 @ 6:51 am

this is much adoo about nothing. It is a headline distraction away from the important work ahead: passing the Obama tax cuts for the Middle Class and repealing DADT. Ear Marks are just a way for the repugs to give FOX subject matter for their faux news programming


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