Battle over earmarks: House Republicans making a ‘strategic calculation’

WASHINGTON — One day after House Democrats proposed banning earmarks to for-profit companies, House Republicans upped the ante by self-imposing a one-year moratorium on appropriations earmarks, a move one local analyst called a “strategic calculation” that they’ll pick up enough political goodwill to offset the complaints from local leaders back home who were hoping for that money.

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota’s senior Republican in Congress was elated, calling today an “historic day in Congress and certainly a day that is long overdue.”

“For years, I have called for an earmark moratorium because it is the only way to wipe the slate clean and allow us to start getting spending under control by fundamentally changing the process by which Congress spends American taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” Kline said. “Washington needs to earn back the sacred trust of the American people, and today’s vote supporting an earmark moratorium is the first step in the right direction.”

Earmarks are the sort of thing that are often politically unpopular generally, but wildly popular in to the folks directly affected. For example, Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” was widely derided as an example of an earmarking system run amok, but one can only assume the city leaders in Faribault enjoyed the $150,000 they got in the 2010 budget for wastewater treatment improvements.

Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor who studies Congress, noted that the Republicans’ plans to not request earmarks won’t decrease the size of appropriations bills. Instead, whatever money isn’t allotted by earmarks will be spent by federal administrators according to their own funding formulas.

While she said few (if any) individual voters are likely to flip and vote Republican over this one issue, “it fits into the [Republican] strategy of attacking the way majority-party Democrats run Congress.”

Ironically enough, while House Republicans might benefit politically from rejecting earmarks, Pearson said Rep. Tim Walz could see some political benefit from not just taking earmarks but this year making an open process of it. Walz posted the 98 earmark requests he got on his website and asked constituents to write in with the reasons they support or oppose any given project.

 “I think this helps Walz really display the benefits of earmarks for projects in his district,” Pearson said.

Minnesota might not see that much change from the House GOP’s move unless Democrats agree to join them (and there are no such signs that they will). Kline is one of the leading Republicans fighting earmarks and thus doesn’t request any. Neither does Rep. Michele Bachmann. Rep. Erik Paulsen has, however he got only one earmark in 2010 (for $400,000) that wasn’t also requested by another member of Congress.

Instead, Pearson said local leaders in those three Republican districts will simply go through their two Democratic senators for earmarks. Just like they did in Faribault.

Since Kline doesn’t bid for earmarks, local leaders in Faribault asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar for help securing the wastewater treatment money. She requested and received the earmark. And so it goes.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/12/2010 - 09:27 am.

    Can we specify the difference between the types of earmarks so loved by Rebs. and those loved by Dems.? This article sites the water system project in Fairbault, which is typical of Dem earmarks – public works projects which support infrastructure and therefore improve the quality of life of taxpayers in general.

    The Rebs., on the other hand, tend to procure earmarks which amount to preferential contracts and other types of direct assistance for the businesses, most often defense contractors, in their districts, which may, in some cases assist local taxpayers with jobs, but tend to also support the already-bloated incomes of their best friends (whom they’re likely to go to work for, at amazing levels of compensation, when they leave the house).

    Dem. earmarks are aimed at doing public good. Reb. earmarks are aimed at padding the pockets of their good buddies.

    The proposed Dem. moratorium on earmarks aimed at for-profit corporations would outlaw almost all Reb. earmarks, and thereby help prevent the Rebs. from loading up the Pentagon budget with items built in their home districts which the military doesn’t even want. Earmarks aimed at the general public would still be legal, however.

    The Rebs. smoke-and-mirrors one-year moratorium is just aimed at their expectation and hope that they will take back the house in 2011. After that, their moratorium will be history (and their cronies who’ve had to survive on their own for a year will be handsomely rewarded for their patience).

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/12/2010 - 11:11 am.

    I think Greg makes many fine points here. Romney wants to have double digit increases in the military spending and he has only one idea on how to pay for it. Just for one year it would be interesting if a blogger of some journalism outfit added the word contractor to every time a Repulican mentions defense spending (except for soldier pay/benefits). I would suggest people read “House of War” about the pentagon or the book Green Zone Life in the Imperial city and the Emerald Zone.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/12/2010 - 11:36 am.

    Reb’s? Huh? Are you fighting the civil war in your head, Greggie?

  4. Submitted by Phil Dech on 03/12/2010 - 11:39 am.

    “Kline is one of the leading Republicans fighting earmarks and thus doesn’t request any.”

    Interestingly, he didn’t seem to have a problem with earmarks until Republicans lost their Congressional majority.

    I know this because my employer directly benefited from one of his earmarks back in the day…

  5. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 03/12/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    And for how many “years” has Rep. Kline called for an earmark moratorium?? Any record of him opposing earmarks when the Repubs were in control? Furthermore, Greg’s point is well taken by Dakota County commisioners and transporation people. Just ask them the damage that has been done by Kline refusing to take earmarks! Anti-congestion projects set back, you name it.

    Rep. Walz’s openness in dealing with earmarks is refreshing and is a way that would allow citizen input and involvement by anyone who is interested enough to get involved. Congress should adopt it for all Congresspeople as a way to deal with earmarks.

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/12/2010 - 02:53 pm.

    Walz is right. I believe Keith Ellison has a similar process for earmark requests. There’s a usefulness to earmarks since many projects are worthy, but too small to warrant taking up limited time. The abuses always seem to be money for cronies or contributors with some amount of secrecy, so making them transparent as the Democrats did, and now restricting them to public bodies, should address the problems.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 03/12/2010 - 09:21 pm.

    I recognize that earmarks are a relatively small percentage of our deficit problem, but I think that if we can stop earmarks, it will reduce the number of pure politicians who can retain higher office. This, in addition to slightly lessening earmark spending, could help clear the way for officeholders who are slightly more willing to make tough decisions. Maybe.

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