House Democrats and Republicans have begun separate internal debates over whether to implement a one-year moratorium on earmarks — but rarely has the climb to the political high ground been so slow.
While a handful of lawmakers have sworn off the practice of inserting pet projects for their districts into appropriations bills, both sides of the aisle have so far rejected the idea of a strict moratorium.
But some opponents of earmarks hope the recent public backlash over spending in Washington will give their push new momentum.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who spent most of his two-year tenure as chairman of the House Republican Study Committee fighting for a moratorium, said through a spokesman, “The momentum is all behind changing the culture of spending” even though earmark spending totals less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is asking his fellow House Republicans to sign a petition that would force a vote in the Conference on a yearlong moratorium for GOP Members before Democrats lay claim to being the anti-earmark champions.
“I warned my leadership for years that we could be outflanked on this,” he said in an interview on Monday. “I think Democrats have seen the writing on the wall.”
Flake said if Republicans adopt the moratorium it was unlikely that Democrats would continue the earmarking process without Republican projects.
“Can you imagine the grief they would take?” Flake said.
During a meeting of the Republican Study Committee last week, Flake began circulating the petition, which calls for Republicans to adopt an earmark ban before the March 19 deadline for submitting appropriations requests.
A Flake spokesman said the Arizona Republican already has 17 of the 50 Republican signatures necessary to force the Conference to meet and discuss the moratorium.
House Republican leaders have tried several times over the past few years to implement a short-term moratorium on earmarks, but their efforts failed to gain support from the majority of the Conference.
In December 2008, Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) created a Republican Earmark Reform Committee and tasked them to develop standards and policies for House Republicans.
The 10-Member committee never released a report because they could not agree on a set of recommendations.
Democratic leaders will likely face similar problems.
Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) privately discussed with her leadership the idea of an earmark moratorium, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions. However, Democratic leaders have yet to vet the idea broadly with their rank and file — or even with Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).
The plan would likely meet aggressive pushback from some corners. Some will likely argue that in such a perilous political environment, endangered incumbents can ill afford to give up on delivering the projects for the sake of what will amount to a talking point.
And many Members in both parties view targeted spending as a constitutionally protected privilege.
Flake said that Republicans would miss a huge political opportunity if Democrats were the first to forsake earmarks.
“The ability to direct 1 percent of the budget isn’t worth the grief,” Flake argued. “It may be unfair, but 99 percent of the problem is perception” that the process is corrupt.
“There is definitely a very strong force against any kind of moratorium,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “The last thing either party wants to do is for this to come up for a vote.”
Ellis said if either party has a bulk of its Members vote against a moratorium it will be seen as a “de facto endorsement” of the practice.
However, “if either party adopts a moratorium, the other is going to have to do it,” Ellis said.
In the Senate, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is also looking to capitalize on Pelosi’s newfound interest in an earmark moratorium.
DeMint announced Monday that he would seek to force a vote on Pelosi’s proposal sometime this week.
“Nancy Pelosi and I don’t agree on many things, but if she’s willing to take a stand for taxpayers, I’ll work with her to put an end to the earmark favor factory,” DeMint said.
He added, “Our nation is drowning in debt that will be paid by our children, and we’ll never stop Washington’s spending addiction unless Members of both parties take bold action.”
According to GOP aides, DeMint will look to force the vote later this week after the Senate wraps up debate on a jobs bill. Although Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has filed cloture on that bill, DeMint will make a motion to suspend the rules to vote on his amendment prior to a final vote.
While motions to suspend the rules are rare in the Senate, DeMint has used them in the past to score political points against Democrats. At the end of the health care debate in December, he used the procedure to force a vote on his proposal to ban trading earmarks for votes after Reid secured the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) by including the “Cornhusker Kickback” in the bill.
DeMint is pursuing an earmark ban without the backing of his leadership, aides said.
Tory Newmyer and John Stanton contributed to this report.