When Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill recently went to war over the budget, press coverage suggested that pork-barrel earmark spending is still a bipartisan problem, that after months of self-righteous rhetoric about fiscal discipline, both parties remain equal-opportunity earmarkers.
It's not true. A new analysis by a group of federal-spending watchdogs shows a striking imbalance between the parties when it comes to earmark requests. Democrats remain raging spenders, while Republicans have made enormous strides in cleaning up their act. In the Senate, the GOP made only one-third as many earmark requests as Democrats for the still-unpassed 2011 budget, and in the House, Republicans have nearly given up earmarking altogether -- while Democrats roll on.
The watchdog groups -- Taxpayers for Common Sense, WashingtonWatch.com and Taxpayers Against Earmarks -- counted total earmark requests in the 2011 budget. Lawmakers made those requests earlier this year, but Democratic leaders, afraid that their party's spending priorities might cost them at the polls, decided not to pass a budget before the Nov. 2 elections. In early December, they distilled those earmark requests -- included many, threw some out, combined others -- into the omnibus bill they hoped to pass before adjourning for Christmas. Even though united Republican opposition stopped the bill, looking back at all the original earmark requests says a lot about the spending inclinations of both parties.
In the 2011 House budget, the groups found that House Democrats requested 18,189 earmarks, which would cost the taxpayers a total of $51.7 billion, while House Republicans requested just 241 earmarks, for a total of $1 billion.
Where did those GOP earmark requests come from? Just four Republican lawmakers: South Carolina Rep. Henry Brown, who did not run for re-election this year; Louisiana Rep. Joseph Cao, who lost his bid for re-election; maverick Texas Rep. Ron Paul; and spending king Rep. Don Young of Alaska. The other Republican members of the House -- 174 of them -- requested a total of zero earmarks.
Talk to Republicans, and they'll say it would be nice if there were no earmark requests at all, but party leaders can't control everyone. "Brown's retiring, Cao's defeated, Paul is Paul, and Young is Young," one GOP aide shrugs. Still, the bottom line is that the House GOP's nearly perfect renunciation of earmarks is striking. "For a voluntary moratorium, it was impressive that there were only four scofflaws," says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Senate is a different story. But even though some Republicans are still seeking earmarks, Democrats are by far the bigger spenders. The watchdog groups found that Democrats requested 15,133 earmarks for 2011, for a total of $54.9 billion, while Republicans requested 5,352 earmarks, for a total of $22 billion. If you look at the top 10 Senate earmarkers as measured by the total dollar value of earmarks requested, there are seven Democrats and three Republicans. (The leader of the pack is Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who requested $4.4 billion in earmarks.) The three Republicans are Sens. Roger Wicker, Sam Brownback and Thad Cochran. One of them, Brownback, is leaving the Senate, while the other two are from Mississippi, which is apparently earmark heaven. Go down the list a bit more, and the party differences are just as clear. Of the top 50 earmarkers in the Senate, 38 are Democrats and 12 are Republicans. And at the bottom of the list, you'll find that the lawmakers who requested few earmarks for relatively small amounts of money are mostly Republicans. And, of course, the senators who have sworn off earmarks entirely (and are trying to convince the rest of the Senate to go along) are Republicans, too.
You would think that President Obama would be siding with those lawmakers, both House and Senate, in the fight against earmarks. "I agree with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who've recently said that in these challenging days, we can't afford what are called earmarks," the president said in his Nov. 13 radio address. Instead, Obama was pulling for the Senate to approve the earmark-laden Democratic spending bill.
No matter. The story of earmarks in the past year is one of Republican self-improvement. The party that wallowed in earmark spending in the past decade is trying to reform itself. In the House especially, their efforts have led to notable success, but they're making progress in the Senate, too. Perhaps the reforms will be temporary -- beginning next year, Republicans will control the House and feel all the temptations of power -- but so far, it's a remarkable accomplishment.