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Earmarks’ Demise Adds To Spending Panel Woes

Earmark opponents couldn’t help but feel a little satisfied this week when Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Tom Harkin of Iowa turned down the previously much sought after post of Appropriations chairman.

“Without earmarks, it’s not nearly the power that the committee had before,” Sen. John McCain said. The Arizona Republican is a long-time critic of member directed spending to pet projects tucked into spending bills.

In previous years, McCain made his way to the Senate floor to call out appropriators on what he argued was wasteful spending in the annual spending bills, including $1.7 million in a fiscal 2010 spending bill to study pig odor in Iowa.

“I have long spoken about the broken appropriations process and the corruption it breeds,” he said in one 2009 speech on the fiscal 2010 defense spending bill. “I remain deeply concerned over the damage done to our country and this institution by their continued abuse.”

When asked if he felt a sense of victory, McCain said, “I haven’t really thought about it, to tell you the truth.”

Meanwhile, anti-earmark crusader Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., indicated he was somewhat pleased.

“It looks as though appropriations isn’t quite as desirable as it once was,” Toomey said. “Its probably not a terrible thing.”

While McCain smiled and seemed to take a little pride in the fact that he helped make it a less desirable spot, he acknowledged the decision also had to do with Leahy’s and Harkin’s current and powerful positions.

“I think it’s the case, to some degree, that the felt they could be more productive in the chairmanships that they had,” McCain said.

Leahy leads the Judiciary Committee, while Harkin is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel. Both are also chairmen appropriations subcommittees. Either would have had to relinquish the full committee chairmanship to take over the spending panel.

Other earmark opponents also believe there seems to have been a cultural shift on the committee.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wasn’t prepared to call it a victory yet, but she thought it was significant.

“I think it should be a reassuring signal to the American people that everyone understands that the next decade in appropriations is going to be about cutting and not about spending,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill, along with Toomey, intends to continue to push for a legislative ban on earmarks. House and Senate Republicans have adopted a voluntary moratorium for the next Congress. Senate Democrats, who will draft the bills in the chamber, are expected to follow suit.

Some experts believe the clout of the committee is waning given the divisive political focus on the budget and the deficit, as well as the self-imposed ban on earmarks. They also believe the panel’s recent great difficulty in getting the 12 annual spending bills into law has also made it a less desirable post.

“[The] Appropriations Committee has clearly lost its allure with the demise of earmarks and the imposition of spending caps under the Budget Control Act,” which was part of the deal struck in 2011 to raise the debt ceiling, Sarah Binder, a congressional historian at George Washington University said.

“The rise of polarized parties has also made this a less attractive assignment than in previous years,” Binder said. “This is a committee that was historically bipartisan. But that bipartisan era is long over. The result? A chamber that today typically fails to pass spending bills until they are folded into omnibus bills.”

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who ranks behind Leahy and Harkin in seniority on Appropriations, has been selected as chairwoman.

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