How conservatives beat the establishment on earmarks

Rob Bluey Contributor
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took Capitol Hill by surprise Monday when he endorsed a two-year timeout from earmarks. McConnell, who originally opposed a moratorium, switched his stance after hearing from constituents fed up with the earmark favor factory.

The GOP leader, himself an appropriator, deserves credit for his conversion. McConnell’s support for the moratorium, championed by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), guaranteed its passage in a closed-door meeting of Republican senators today.

But long before McConnell became a divisive figure in the earmark debate, there was another Republican leader in the crosshairs.

In late August, conservatives were shocked to read in Politico that House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had suggested “Republicans may roll back their ban on earmarks, as long as the spending items have ‘merit.’”

A majority of Republicans in the House and Senate agreed to give up earmarks in March. Now, only two months before Election Day, it appeared Cantor was setting the stage for a return to pork-barrel spending should the GOP capture control of the House.

The news disappointed even Cantor’s staunchest supporters. It seemed to be at odds with the growing influence of Tea Party activists, who made government spending a signature issue, and entirely the wrong message for an American public angry at Washington’s wasteful ways.

Extending the earmark moratorium seemed like a long shot.

Six weeks later, Cantor would transform the debate. Like McConnell’s bold move yesterday, Cantor announced in a Politico oped on Oct. 13 that he supported an earmark moratorium for the 112th Congress — essentially extending the GOP-only ban to the entire House.

“There is no question that earmarks — rightly or wrongly — have become the poster child for Washington’s wasteful spending binges,” Cantor wrote. “They have been linked to corruption and scandal, and serve as a fuel line for the culture of spending that has dominated Washington for far too long.”

The move put Cantor to the right of his House colleagues. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) never requested an earmark as a congressman, but he had yet to call for extending the moratorium. And even though Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) supported earmark reform, he wasn’t aggressively pushing a ban.

Having a member of leadership denounce earmarks moved even the unlikeliest Republicans — congressional appropriators — in the right direction. Two of them, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), were trying to outflank each other on the issue to gain the upper hand.

Just one month after Cantor declared war on earmarks, Republicans in the House and Senate will swear off earmarks for the next two years.

It wouldn’t have happened without the help of the newly formed group Taxpayers Against Earmarks. Chairman Joe Ricketts, founder of Ameritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs, barnstormed Capitol Hill to meet with leaders on the moratorium idea. Meanwhile, the group’s political arm sponsored television and radios ads against incumbents who abused earmarks.

Ricketts, whose organization wants to cut government spending, picked earmarks as a starting point because they represent a small portion of the federal budget yet are considered the “gateway drug” to higher spending. As the debate intensified in the Senate last week, Taxpayers Against Earmarks launched a whip count and online ads targeting GOP senators.

“We helped make clear to leadership how important this issue is to the American people,” said Brian Baker, the group’s president. “Taxpayers Against Earmarks launched a whip count and online ads targeting members. It will give those in Congress time to fix the broken congressional budget and appropriations process.”

For years earmark opponents in Congress such as DeMint, Coburn and Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) waged a lonely battle against pork-barrel spending. They pointed out the absurdity of parochial projects and the corrupting influence of earmarks.

Today, thanks to an influx of Tea Party-backed candidates and growing public anger about government spending, these anti-earmark crusaders are no longer on the periphery. Their leadership is paying dividends — and changing minds.

While they deserve much of the credit for pushing Congress in the right direction, this week’s House and Senate action on earmarks wouldn’t have been possible without Cantor’s bold decision last month and the behind-the-scenes work of Ricketts.

By putting the House on course to pass an earmark moratorium, Cantor boosted the Senate proposal. And with Taxpayers Against Earmarks shaming senators, it became increasingly difficult for earmark supporters to defend pork-barrel spending.

It’s a textbook example of how conservatives committed to limited government can make a difference. Yet it represents only the beginning of a significant fight over government spending. The battle resumes Wednesday when Coburn will force the Senate to hold a public vote on an earmark moratorium — seeking to put all 100 senators on the record, not just the GOP.

Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism operation at The Heritage Foundation.