WASHINGTON -- While House Republicans reacted to stinging rejection from America's voters by refusing to change leadership, their Senate counterparts have tried to use their closing weeks in power to enact a last burst of pork-barrel spending. But that effort was stalled last week by independent-minded Republican senators, spearheaded by two abrasive freshmen and one longtime hairshirt. Before Congress recessed Friday for Thanksgiving, the GOP leadership appeared to capitulate.
The freshmen, Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, campaigning in 2004 in Oklahoma and South Carolina, promised not to fall in line with GOP leaders. Fulfilling that pledge allied them with the long-termer John McCain. They have been backed by Jeff Sessions of Alabama and another freshman, John Sununu of New Hampshire. In the lame-duck session's first week, they played Horatio at the Bridge by combining to block a pork-filled omnibus spending bill.
That would place responsibility for spending excesses on the new Democratic majority taking office next year. It is highly unlikely that Sen. Robert Byrd, a legendary king of pork returning as Appropriations Committee chairman, will reverse the habits of a lifetime and listen to ordinary voters' revulsion over excessive federal spending. "Voters want the earmark favor factory shut down, not turned over to new management," said Coburn. He estimates that Congress can save the taxpayers a cool $17.1 billion by passing a resolution that would continue spending at present levels rather than enacting an omnibus bill laden with earmarks.
The bipartisan dismay the dissenters have caused cannot be exaggerated. Hard-working staffers are beside themselves that their lame-duck feast of pork is being thwarted. K-Street lobbyists are frustrated that they are being deprived of a vehicle for their special interest amendments.Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran wanted President Bush, currently in Asia on a trade mission, to phone DeMint and ask him to stop blocking the agriculture appropriations bill. It did not happen, and the Republican leaders mournfully agreed to the cost-cutting resolution. An irate House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, who has taken pride in passing his committee's bills on schedule and filled with earmarks, called the outcome an "absolute disaster and catastrophe."
Among senators wailing that their pet projects are being derailed, none has been louder than Democrat Kent Conrad, who will be Budget Committee chairman in the new Congress. A self-described fiscal conservative (because he wants tax increases), Conrad in 2005 alone submitted 41 proposals busting the Bush budget. He was so distraught last week that the ag money bill blocked by DeMint contained $4.9 billion in additional emergency relief that he threatened to stop any money bills from passing in the lame-duck session. He did not follow through with this program of actually closing the government.
The cornucopia that the senators want to sneak through is reflected in 40 pork-stripping amendments to the ag bill that Coburn was ready to introduce in the lame-duck session. His key amendments were aimed at $1.1 million for alternative salmon research in Alaska, $591,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute and $194,000 for Goose Control in the state of New York.
The scope and irrelevancy of earmarks are reflected in another target on McCain's hit list: $200,000 for the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Davee Center for Epidemiology, both in Chicago. A stated purpose is "maintenance of health in zoo populations nationwide."
While the Senate's archaic rules can frustrate the will of the majority in passing legislation and confirming presidential nominations, they also can enable a few strong-minded senators to fight excess spending. These senators may well temporarily close what Tom Coburn calls the "favor factory" maintained by Republicans. Will the Democrats try to reopen it next year?