It was great to see every Republican lined up against the Democrats’ mammoth health care bill. The only consolation to having such bad legislation pass was to have a bright line drawn between Republicans and Democrats for the voters to see in November.
With the focus on health care, some may have missed the fact that another bright line has been drawn between the parties. House Republicans have agreed to a unilateral earmark moratorium for the remainder of the year. Universal Republican opposition to the health care bill was expected. Universal Republican opposition to earmarks was not. This is big, and it has the potential for a huge political payoff in November.
Nothing has been more emblematic of Republicans’ abdication of fiscal responsibility than our abuse of earmarks. During our time in the majority, we used earmarks to protect vulnerable Members, reward loyal Members, buy votes on difficult bills, and boost our own fundraising. The Democrats have been more than happy to carry on with the practice, but it was Republicans who let the hogs out.
Some have defended earmarking by asserting that it represents just one percent of the federal budget. If so, you certainly have to question whether selling our fiscal birthright for the ability to direct a measly one percent of the budget toward favored projects in our districts was worth it. Such a poor trade has probably not been made since the days of Esau.
The bottom line is that when voters can’t trust you with the most visible one percent of the budget, they’re certainly not going to believe that you can tackle intractable budget issues like entitlement reform.
With the passage of health care reform, Democrats aren’t likely to consider difficult legislation that divides their caucus and provides easy fodder for Republicans. Consequently, we’ve probably seen the last of major bills like cap-and-trade and card-heck. The bulk of the congressional workload this year will be the spending bills that Congress is required to pass every year. If we Republicans are going to differentiate ourselves from Democrats for the remainder of the year, it’s going to have to be on spending.
There’s no better way to convince voters that House Republicans have found religion on fiscal issues than sticking hard and fast to this moratorium on earmarks for the next year. If Republicans stick to the moratorium, Democrats will earmark at their political peril. Republicans can challenge Democratic earmarks on the House floor day in and day out this summer and early fall, and it will be difficult for Democrats to sustain that kind of beating. The most likely scenario is that Democrats will be forced at some point this year to completely swear off earmarks as well. Showing that kind of leadership is a good way to earn our majority back.
It has been pointed out that there are many similarities between the political climate today and what existed in 1994—an arrogant majority that has overshot its mandate, unpopular votes, and ethical swamps that have not been drained. Sound familiar?
But in 1994 we could make promises and voters took us at our word. With unpleasant memories of Republican rule still fresh on their minds, we no longer have that luxury. We’ve got to be believable. Our actions between now and November have to be consistent with our principles.
In his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference a few weeks ago, Minority Leader John Boehner promised that if Republicans take back the majority, we will run the House “differently than it’s been run in the past under Democrats OR Republicans.”
With this earmark moratorium, we’ve found the path back to majority status. Now all we have to do is stick to that path.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) represents the 6th Congressional District of Arizona.