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Senate Votes to Keep Earmarks; Eight GOP Senators Join Democratic Majority (Update: GOP 'Young Gun' Reacts)

Writing in the Washington Post today, Speaker-to-be John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that federal spending is an area where Democrats and Republicans can work together:

When congressional leaders of both parties meet at the White House today, all of us will have an opportunity to show the American people that we got the message of the elections earlier this month.

Republicans heard the voters loud and clear. They want us to focus on preventing a tax hike on every taxpayer, reining in Washington spending and making it easier for employers to start hiring again. Today, Republican leaders renew our offer to work with anyone, from either party, who is ready to focus on the priorities of the American people.

And how right the GOP leaders were: Today, eight Republicans in the Senate joined the Democratic majority in voting to keep their earmark spending power. Working together!  Those eight senators are:

Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), James Inhofe (Okla.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) voted against an amendment to food-safety legislation that would have enacted a two-year ban on the spending items. Retiring Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah) also voted against it.

Most of the names on that list are no surprise.  Neither Bennett nor Voinovich had the conservative stones, or gene, or whatever to make any tough decisions on spending.  Thankfully, both are out the door once the lame-duck session is over.  Collins and Lugar have always had their squishy sides; again it’s little surprise that they voted for earmarks.  Lugar does stand for re-election in 2012, though, so this vote likely earned him a primary challenge.  Murkowski was handed her seat by her father and is the evident write-in winner of the AK Senate race; she is not a strong conservative and is actively hated by the Tea Party, which actively loathes big-spending Washington politicians.  That’s why they voted for Joe Miller in the AK GOP primary.

But Inhofe, Cochran, and Shelby’s votes are dissapointing, to say the least.

Inhofe’s argument in favor of retaining earmark power boils down to this:

Why? Because instead of reducing the federal budget, it will empower Obama administration bureaucrats to spend the funds members of Congress would have sent home through earmarks. Also, last year’s earmarks accounted for 1.5% of discretionary spending. Where’s the focus on the other 98.5%? Earmarks are nothing more than a distraction from the real spending and debt crisis facing our nation.

Cochran’s and Shelby’s positions amount to the same logic.  All three are champion earmarkers.

I have a great deal of respect for Sen. Inhofe, especially for his history of battling with the EPA and the global warming doom mongers, but on earmarks he’s unpersuasive.  He is right that earmarks themselves amount to just a small percentage of the overall federal budget.  But I think he’s understating their overall impact.  Earmarks have a way of obtaining votes for legislation that might not otherwise pass, and in turn commit dollars that probably wouldn’t get spent otherwise.  Say a congressman has been trying to get a few million dollars in federal funds for some project in his district, but hasn’t been able to make that happen on its own merits, for the simple reason that congressman outside that district don’t see the need for their own constituents to pay for that project.  Along comes the chairman of thus-and-such committee with a multi-billion dollar piece of legislation that’s completely disconnected from the congressman’s pet project, and which the congressman opposes on principle.  But the chairman needs the congressman’s vote and the congressman wants to attach his project to something, anything, that gets passed, so the horse trading over the bad multi-billion dollar legislation begins.  And pretty soon the few million dollar project that the congressman wants buys his vote on massive legislation that he otherwise opposes.  So here we have two projects that get through the sausage factory and the taxpayers get stuck with the tab even though, on their own merits, both projects would have and probably should have failed.

That’s the kind of daily, year in and year out corruption that earmarks enable on bill after bill after bill, exploding the debt and imperiling the nation.  And that’s why they need to go.

Here’s the thing that all of these GOP senators and the rest of the caucus in both houses need to keep in mind.  The midterms showed definitively that the electorate is in a fighting mood.  That hasn’t abated since Election Day; if anything, it’s increasing.  If the midterms sent a message to Obama that his policies and tactics are out of kilter and offensive to the majority of Americans, the earmark vote was a chance to show that the Republicans have gotten the message that they’re with the people.  Most Republicans either were already there or got that message, and even a few Democrats got there.  But eight Republicans didn’t.

So here’s a message for them from the folks: We’re paying attention.

Update: Rep-elect Bill Flores (TX-17), who comes in with the freshman class in January and is one of the NRCC’s “Young Guns” of 2010, tells PJM today that that the earmark system will be smashed.  I just received this statement from Flores’ camp:

The Democratic majority in the Senate has once again shown that they are out of touch with the will of the American people.  The earmark process is broken and must be fully dismantled to stop vote trading, corruption, and deficit spending which plagues this Congress.