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Senate Republicans to Forgo Earmarks

earmarkpigWith Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announcing that he will support an earmark moratorium today, it’s almost certain that the Senate Republican Conference will forswear earmarks by vote tomorrow.

So what happens now?

Politically, interesting things happen. The House, which will be controlled by the Republicans, will also not do earmarks in the 112th Congress, leaving only Senate Democrats as earmarkers. There are signs they might give up earmarks, too. But if they don’t, it’s unknown territory when the House and Senate get together to hammer out spending bills. They’ll have to decide: Earmarks, yes or no?

If push were to come to shove and a government shut-down loomed, House Republicans might be able to hold their ground, because President Obama is not well positioned to use the bully pulpit against them. He has called for earmark transparency, which hasn’t happened, and he is not positioned to say that earmarks are all-of-a-sudden OK.

The president would probably turn against Senate Democrats if they alone tried to continue the practice. Their only hope might be highly restricted earmarking that is highly transparent.

At least one Republican senator, Tom Coburn (R-OK), is really going for it and apparently seeking to make sure that no earmarks get into any spending bill for the current fiscal year.

Having failed to pass a single spending bill by the beginning of the 2011 fiscal year October 1st, Congress passed a continuing resolution instead (P.L. 111-242, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011cost: $6,800) that funds the government until December 3rd. By that time, Congress has to pass another bill—either another “CR” that kicks spending decisions over a few more months or an “omnibus” that takes care of spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

If it’s an omnibus, it might be laden up with earmarks like nobody’s business. So Senator Coburn is preparing to offer a “no earmark” amendment to a food safety bill this week. (S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act – cost: $16.42). Exciting stuff—and really annoying to the folks who want to see that bill passed! But Dr. Coburn can be like that.

Looking further out, some of the arguments Senator McConnell made against the earmark ban might deserve some focus: Earmarks are only a tiny part of the budget, a symbolic issue (except for how they’re used to “buy” votes in Congress). So people worried about the budget and fiscal issues should really start to pay attention now, not declare victory and go home.

Earmarks are the amuse bouche of the federal budget process, and the rest of the meal is pretty big.

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