Earmarks Still Roil GOP

Posted January 28, 2008 at 6:58pm

As President Bush prepared to launch a direct assault on earmarks in Monday night’s State of the Union address, House Republican leaders continued to deal with the fallout from last week’s Conference retreat during which a substantive discussion of reforming the process took center stage.

The GOP’s effort culminated in a letter the leaders sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) late Friday night, calling for Democrats to agree to an immediate moratorium on earmark requests in the fiscal 2009 appropriations bills and to the creation of a select bipartisan committee to study the earmark process. However, if Democrats do not agree, Republicans are not bound unilaterally to the moratorium.

Fiscal conservatives — who were pushing the Conference to adopt a yearlong moratorium on earmarks not contingent upon what the Democrats do — expressed disappointment with the retreat’s outcome, saying the party had not gone far enough in committing to real reform.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said the level of support expressed for the moratorium — gauged by a show of hands — caught GOP leaders off-guard.

“When they asked for the show of hands it was bigger than I, or many of those around me, expected,” Flake said. “There were some frenzied huddles going on around the room.”

Another attendee, who requested anonymity, suggested leadership had bungled the effort and that after a three-hour discussion about earmark reform, the call for a show of hands served as a “pin prick” that deflated the conversation. At that point, leaders huddled and agreed to resume the conversation at the dinner hour.

Flake, and others in the room, said the support for the moratorium did not just come from disaffected conservatives but also from some moderates and Members who aren’t ordinarily viewed as prone to pick up the reform mantle.

“There are a good number of people who recognize we have to be more bold,” Flake said.

He added: “Leadership could have had a moratorium and didn’t. That’s what leaders do, they lead. A lot of Members wanted a moratorium.”

An estimated 15 to 20 House Republicans already have agreed to a personal moratorium on earmarks and have said they will not make any new funding requests for the remainder of the year.

Following the State of the Union, Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) called on senior members of the GOP Conference, including appropriators, ranking members and members of the leadership team, to follow that example and pledge their own personal earmark moratorium.

On Monday, Hensarling said the party made “progress on earmarks” at their retreat but “not nearly as much as I would have hoped for.”

Still, plenty of rank-and-file Republicans saw the challenge to Pelosi as a positive first step.

“I like what they came up with,” said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), who left the retreat before the earmark discussion Saturday afternoon.

Gerlach said there is no question that the earmark process needs to be reformed in a bilateral and bicameral way, but he stopped short of endorsing an end to the practice entirely.

“I do think there’s a place for earmarks,” he said, adding that he knows his district and its needs better than bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., or Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, other GOP sources argued that support for the moratorium was somewhat skewed because the ideological bent of the audience at the retreat was more conservative than the Conference as a whole. They said there was a concern among leaders that the whole Conference, including more moderate Members who also are more politically vulnerable, should not be left out of the discussion about how to move forward.

Republican leadership aides stressed that the letter to Pelosi was only a first step and that it paves the way for future action to be taken down the road.

“The action that came out of our retreat was a solid first step on earmark reform and it should by no means be taken as a signal that this is the only thing we’re going to do,” said one aide.

Going into the earmark discussion, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had telegraphed that Republicans were looking to take bold action to reform the earmark process in an effort to earn their way back to the majority.

“We’re here today to ask ourselves: Are Republicans the party that can fix Washington? If so, what sacrifices are we willing to make to PROVE we are that party? We cannot do this without being bold and putting forth fresh solutions,” Boehner said in addressing the retreat Friday morning, according to excerpts of his remarks.

In addition to challenging Democrats to agree to an immediate moratorium, Republicans also outlined a series of earmark reform standards they will adopt immediately. Those include not using taxpayer money to fund projects named after themselves, holding the executive branch accountable for earmarks it requests and requiring more disclosure for Members who request earmarks.

On Monday, Democrats called the GOP’s proposal weak and claimed credit for cutting earmarks already and making them more transparent.

“I think the Republicans have pulled their punch on earmarks,” Pelosi said, referring to the call for a moratorium and additional reforms as “a very lukewarm approach.”

“They want to beat the loud drum, but when it comes down to it, they want their earmarks,” she said.

Pelosi added that she is not a supporter of earmarks, and that it is her belief that “if we are going to do away with earmarks, we should do away with presidential earmarks as well.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave a full-throated defense of earmarks, arguing that Congress has the “obligation” to “take care of their constituents” instead of leaving funding decisions to “some bureaucrat, with his green eyeshades and funny little hat.”

Monday night, Bush was expected to issue a threat to veto legislation that does not cut earmarks in half from 2008 levels.

But Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), an appropriator and prominent defender of earmarks, said Democrats should do more earmarking, not less.

“I want to represent my district and this administration certainly isn’t doing that,” Moran said. “We should be earmarking more, for roads and bridges and even soup kitchens. People are hurting.”

Moran noted the explosion of earmarks under Republicans and how Bush only now is demanding that they be cut.

“I think he’s either smoking the stuff he used to at Yale or he’s listening to the right wing fringe. … He needs to fix this economy. Earmarks are a footnote to the economy, if that.”

Moran also dismissed House Republicans’ call for an earmark moratorium as a stunt.

“The Republicans will use us for cover, but they may need their earmarks more than we do,” he said.

Moran also made the argument that Congress has the responsibility to direct money. “Every dollar gets earmarked. The only difference is who does the earmarking.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.