Keeping their Earmarks

Robert Novak

4/19/2007 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's Democratic leaders have a political problem with earmarks. Ever since the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska captured the public's imagination last year, they have been on record against legislators stealthily slipping in their favorite spending projects. But most senators, from both parties, really want to keep earmarks. An ingenious effort to reconcile those conflicting political desires created a remarkable tableau in the U.S. Senate Tuesday.

First-term Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina rose on the Senate floor shortly before noon to request unanimous consent for immediate enactment of a rule requiring full disclosure of earmarks. But the Democratic leadership was forewarned. Just before DeMint took the floor, the Appropriations Committee -- led by Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate's king of pork -- issued its own flawed anti-earmark regulation. Then, Majority Whip Dick Durbin objected to passage of the DeMint rule on grounds that ethics should not be considered on a piecemeal basis.

This Democratic scenario got rave reviews from most Republicans. Senators like to be on record against earmarks while still enjoying them. The problem is that DeMint and his fellow Republican first-termer, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, just won't let the issue rest. Amid thundering silence from the GOP leadership after Durbin's objection, Coburn declared on the Senate floor: "I would remind my colleagues that we don't have a higher favorable rating than the president at this time . . . and the reason we don't is the very reason we just saw. . . . It's a sad day in the Senate because we're playing games with the American public."

Shortly after the Democrats took power on Capitol Hill, the Senate on Jan. 16 approved, 98 to 0, the DeMint rule, requiring full disclosure of earmarks, as an amendment to the lobbying and ethics reform bill. DeMint rejoiced at "the intent on both sides of the aisle to make sure there is more disclosure." Byrd and Durbin, longtime purveyors of earmarks, seconded DeMint.

But the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) heard a different message from the new masters of Capitol Hill. CRS on Feb. 22 issued a directive that it "will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities or individuals." That deprived DeMint and Coburn of their primary source of intelligence. Furthermore, the ethics bill was bogged down in the House (which normally will pass anything the Democratic leadership wants). The DeMint rule was an amendment to nothing. Legislation was going through the congressional pipeline with undisclosed earmarks, as requests for earmark applications still did not require transparency.

Consequently, on April 12, DeMint brought up his rule for passage under unanimous consent. Freshman Sen. Bob Menendez, on duty for the Democratic leadership, objected. Menendez claimed, reporter John Stanton wrote in the Roll Call newspaper, "that despite numerous news stories and notifications from DeMint that he intended to seek the UC [unanimous consent], Democrats had not been given adequate time to review the proposed amendment."

DeMint announced he would try again Tuesday, and he was not alone. Besides Coburn, he was joined by second-termer Michael Enzi of Wyoming and first-termers Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and John Cornyn of Texas. That gang of five might be called the Senate Republican reform caucus.

In response, the Democrats prepared carefully. Eleven minutes before DeMint spoke, Byrd's Appropriations Committee announced "an unprecedented policy of transparency and accountability." Democrats were not relying on a freshman senator this time. Byrd was presiding as the Senate's president pro tem, and Majority Whip Durbin objected and insisted a full ethics bill must be passed. "It is not the right way to accomplish our goal," he said.

That leaves the door open for earmarks on authorization bills, like the "Bridge to Nowhere." "So," Coburn told the Senate after Durbin's objection, "we will play the same game but one step further back."

This is no Democrat-vs.-Republican partisan struggle. The word in the Republican cloakroom was that a GOP senator would derail the DeMint rule if the Democrats did not. The Republican leadership is not enthralled with DeMint and Coburn, and would like them to go away. They won't. They are determined to bring into the open who sponsors and who benefits from earmarks.