In leading his colleagues in a vote on Tuesday to ban the lawmaker-directed spending items known as earmarks, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and consummate Congressional appropriator, averted a divisive clash within his caucus over the question of joining the new House Republican majority in enacting an earmark “moratorium” for the next Congress.
Given how zealously Mr. McConnell has defended the constitutional prerogative of Congress to control the federal purse, his turnabout was also the surest sign yet that the rightward pressure of Tea Party groups, and an antispending sentiment among voters, have begun to influence the way Washington does business.
At the same time, the renewed push against earmarks highlighted a potential conflict between the calls to eliminate the spending items and demands by many Tea Party supporters for greater fidelity to the Constitution. It is the Constitution, after all, that put Congress in charge of deciding how to spend the taxpayers’ money. In pledging not to let individual lawmakers designate federal money for local purposes, the anti-earmark contingent is in effect ceding more power to the executive branch over how taxpayer dollars are spent, presumably not the outcome desired by the new crop of grass-roots conservatives.
“If Congress does not direct any spending,” said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who supported the earmark ban, “the president will have 100 percent of the discretion in all federal programs. The failed stimulus is replete with examples of the president’s earmarks that are wasteful.”
The earmark ban is one issue forcing Republicans to navigate among conflicting priorities, like tax cutting and deficit reduction. But it has quickly emerged as a high-profile if somewhat symbolic test of the willingness of Republicans — and some Democrats for that matter — to respond to what they see as a message of the midterm elections.
Both supporters and skeptics of an earmark ban say that it would empower the executive branch, at least initially. While earmarks amount to a trickle in the government’s flood of red ink — slightly more than three-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending — most of that money would still be expended by federal agencies in the absence of earmarks but without specific directions from Congress.
Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said, “I remain unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority.” But he said he would abide by his colleagues’ wishes .
Some critics of earmarks say the tension between the constitutional and antispending prerogatives is overblown. Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said Congress could easily maintain — and even expand — its purview over spending and still not engage in the earmarking process that has led to corruption scandals and is often viewed as a way to generate campaign contributions.
“This notion that earmarks are an expression of our Article 1 authority, that’s a pretty sad tale,” Mr. Flake said in an interview, referring to the part of the Constitution that gives Congress power of the purse.
He said defenders of earmarks often noted that they accounted for a tiny percentage of federal spending, and Mr. Flake said that was the reason Congress should stop paying so much attention to them.
Instead, he argued, Congress should focus on the vast bulk of the budget that it has already ceded to the administration’s control, and should improve the authorization process by which Congressional committees judge the merit of spending items, the appropriations process in which the money is allocated and subsequent oversight.
Ralph Spampanato, an organizer of the Stark County 9-12 Patriots, in Ohio, said that he supported the idea of an earmark ban and that Congress should exercise its constitutional authority by adopting a budget and demanding that agencies stick to it.
“If they give them the money that’s required to get their basic job done, there won’t be any money leftover to spend,” Mr. Spampanato said.
Mr. Flake said: “We need to reinvigorate the authorization process. The problem with earmarking is you do very little authorizing, a lot of appropriating and very little oversight.”