The Future of Earmarks Depends on Senate Republicans

Senate Republicans are expected to vote on the conference's earmark policy next Tuesday or Wednesday, with South Carolina's Jim DeMint leading the charge.

Will the earmarks ban pass? And, if it does, what can it mean for the future of pork?

Earmarks, which have made up less than one percent of the federal budget (still, over $15 billion), have been consistently vilified by fiscal hawks. They're local or state funding requests made by individual lawmakers for their home districts, often directed to specific companies, guiding federal dollars for construction or defense spending and circumventing the bidding process handles by administrative-branch bureaucrats. They can be used to secure votes (as we saw, sort of, when Medicare funding was to be doled out to Nebraska as Sen. Ben Nelson was on the fence over health care), and they give tremendous power to the Appropriations Committee members who control which funding requests make it into a final appropriations bill.

Earmarks are getting a lot of attention right now, mostly because a wave, or a tsunami, or a whitecap of fiscal conservatives have just been elected to Congress, promising to spend less, lower taxes, and balance the budget. But they don't want to take away Medicare or Social Security benefits, so earmarks are the only element of federal spending that all of them can agree, at this point, should be cut.

Given that local constituencies enjoy the jobs brought by federal largesse, and that politicians enjoy taking credit for them, DeMint may have a tough time getting his fellow Senate Republicans to agree not to request earmarks anymore.

His proposal for a conference earmarks ban is backed by four Republican senators and six senators-elect already: Tom Coburn (OK), John Ensign (NV), Mike Enzi (WY), and John Cornyn (TX) along with newcomers Pat Toomey (PA), Marco Rubio (FL), Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Ron Johnson (WI), and Kelly Ayotte (NH). But at least a handful of Republicans aren't on board yet, and they could be expected to resist. The eight remaining GOP members of the Appropriations Committee could be tough to convince, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has defended them before.

But earmarks appear to be on their way out, and if Senate Republicans agree on a moratorium, it could mean the end of pork for the near future.

Not only has President Obama signaled that he would be open to an earmarks ban, House Republicans are united in their desire to ban them. In March, House Republicans agreed to request no earmarks for one year (though Alaska's Don Young, for instance--the House's longtime earmarks king--requested them anyway), and, now that Republicans control the House, it's plausible that the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee won't allow them in any spending bill--and that, when House and Senate appropriators meet to decide on the final versions of spending bills that have passed in different forms through each chamber, the House side will press to remove Senate-originated earmarks from final bills before they're sent to Obama's desk.

For earmarks to truly disappear, the House and Senate will have to actually pass legislation that bans them. Right now, it appears that such legislation could pass the House, but not the Senate. If Republicans band together against them next week, that calculus changes, and with Obama's pen waiting at the ready, earmarks will sit on the precipice of disappearing.