Republican Earmarks Taint Spending Criticism

Republican Earmarks Taint Spending Criticism

By Kyle Trygstad - March 13, 2009

While Republicans criticize President Obama for not sticking to a campaign promise to rid government of wasteful spending, the GOP itself is finding trouble getting back to the kind of fiscal discipline its members say disappeared over the last several years they controlled Congress.

Republicans in Congress vilified Democrats for both the overall size and the number of earmarks attached to the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill that Obama signed Wednesday. However, despite the rhetoric, Republicans requested 40 percent of the earmarks and ranked among the highest pork barrel spenders.

Six of the 10 senators that requested the most earmark dollars were Republicans, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog group. In the House, Republicans accounted for five of the top 10.

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One such Member was Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican Leader in the Senate who raked in $51 million for his state -- good enough for ninth most in the upper chamber. Before voting against the bill Tuesday, however, McConnell railed against what he said was bloated spending and called on Obama to issue his first presidential veto.

"In the midst of a serious economic downturn, the Senate had a chance to show it could impose the same kind of restraint on itself that millions of Americans are being forced to impose on themselves at the moment," McConnell said from the Senate floor.

Following the vote, McConnell issued a press release that simultaneously announced his opposition to what he said was an oversized bill and touted the millions of dollars he personally brought home to Kentucky.

Unlike McConnell, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is personally opposed to earmarks and had none in the bill -- as did most of the House GOP leadership -- giving him some political cover in attacking earmarks. The contrast was noticeable Wednesday when the two House and Senate leaders stood beside each other at a press conference, as Boehner blamed the President for signing an earmark-laden omnibus that McConnell and many other Republicans contributed to.

Equally boastful of his earmarks was Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who requested some $2 million more in earmarks than McConnell and likewise voted against the measure. Inhofe, though, was upfront about his feelings on pork barrel spending.

"I want my constituents to be absolutely clear about my position on earmarks," Inhofe said in a press release following the vote. "As long as the current process remains, you can bet I will be working to get every dollar I can for Oklahoma."

On the House side, Boehner led the charge against the omnibus, calling for a freeze in federal spending and for Obama to veto the bill. Along with other members of the minority leadership, including Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Boehner ripped the Democrats for pushing a bill that increased spending and included more than 8,000 earmarks at a time of economic crisis.

In the weeks prior to Obama signing the bill, though, the leadership had difficulty answering reporters' questions regarding their own party's contribution to the thousands of earmarks. Asked about it once again at a press conference Thursday, Boehner quickly switched the discussion to Democrats. "Let's remember that 60 percent of the earmarks were the other guys. All right?" he said. "So those that want to try to divide our party, look, the whole process needs to be fixed."

On February 24, Boehner answered by saying he was waiting for a report from a Republican earmark reform task force he created. As The Hill reports, though, no report has yet been published as Republicans have failed to agree on how reformative they want to be. Two members of that panel said they doubt their conference is ready for any kind of reform.

"Had we done something before the omnibus or whether we do something after the omnibus, it doesn't matter much because the omnibus said all that needed to be said about our commitment to earmark reform," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Democrats, of course, were responsible for 60 percent of the earmarks in the omnibus, and none were apologizing for it. Since overtaking power in Congress in January 2007, however, the party has implemented more rigorous earmarking guidelines that they say makes the process more transparent. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted recently that Democrats reduced the total number of earmarks last year by 43 percent, while earmark totals increased every year Republicans controlled Congress.

Prior to Obama's omnibus signing ceremony and release of his own earmark reform principles, House Democrats announced two new earmark guidelines that add a 20-day executive branch review to the process.

In a press release announcing this, Hoyer indicated the party's stance on earmarks: "Earmarks are part of Congress's power of the purse, which all Americans know as essential to the balance of powers between the branches of government. At the same time, it is critical that Congress be vigilant in spending taxpayers' money. That is why Democrats immediately enacted strong accountability and transparency earmark reforms upon gaining the Majority two years ago. "

As Republicans continue to attempt to get their own house in order, Boehner, Flake and other anti-earmark Republicans -- including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- feel the Democrats' reforms only go so far. "Where is the beef? Where is the reform?" Boehner said Wednesday. "I just don't see it."

More From RealClearPolitics: The 10 Senators Who Snagged the Most Pork in This Year's Spending Bill

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Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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