McConnell’s next test

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Last week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell joined the First Church of No Earmarks (for the moment anyway), but now he faces another tough test: will he appoint spending-cutters to the Appropriations Committee?

Fiscal conservatives cheered when McConnell got on board with penny-pinching John McCain and defeated Harry Reid’s bloated omnibus spending bill last Thursday. Last month he declared, “the people have spoken — and I am listening.” This was a reference to the midterm election’s conservative wave, which was driven partly by a hatred of Congress’ same-old logrolling ways.

While the defeat of Reid’s spending bill was significant, it was also a one-shot event. Those seeking lasting change in Washington’s bad habits need to scrutinize the composition of the Republican side of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 112th Congress. Due to an unprecedented number of vacancies (at least five), McConnell has a unique chance to remake his side of the committee — if he wants to.

Before we look at some of McConnell’s choices, here’s a quick primer on the Senate Republicans’ rules of the game. If a senator is a member of the Finance, Armed Services or Foreign Relations committees (the “A” committees), he or she can’t be a member of the Appropriations Committee. Thus senior “A” committee Republicans must decide whether they want to swap their seniority on an important committee for a slot on Appropriations. The answer is usually “no.”

Those likely to say “no thanks” include Richard Lugar (R-IN), who won’t give up his cherished seat on Foreign Relations, and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who would lose the top Republican (“ranking”) slot on Finance. Likewise, John McCain (R-AZ) isn’t expected to relinquish his ranking member status on Armed Services.

However, Chuck Grassley (R-IA) may want to move to Appropriations as he no longer can hold the ranking spot on Finance due to term limits. Sadly, before there was the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” we had Grassley’s Iowa Indoor Rainforest Project, a jungle-on-the-prairie tourist attraction that The New Republic recently ranked as one of the top ten craziest earmarks ever. Not a hopeful sign.

On the upside, possible Appropriations appointments include the outspoken Dr. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint (R-SC). Both are seasoned warriors against the logrolling favors system, and have no qualms about shaming Senate colleagues on their wasteful use of taxpayer dollars. Being on Appropriations would give them the perfect pulpit to fight for a smaller government.

John Thune (R-SD), another possibility, comes from a state that’s heavily dependent on federal subsidies for agriculture. But his interest in running for president puts him in the spotlight, and he could use his position on Appropriations to prove he’s got that spending-cut fever.

Unfortunately, some longtime big-spending Senate appropriators are due to return in 2011, starting with Thad Cochran (R-MS), the top committee Republican, who requested $490 million in earmarks for this year alone! For his free-spending ways, Citizens Against Government Waste gave him the dubious honor of being the biggest Congressional porker for the third year in a row and dubbed him “Thad the Impaler.” His press release last month on the Republican effort for a two-year moratorium on earmarks was a literary shrug, the tone being: it’s a lousy idea from the Republican leadership. Watching the Impaler take on Coburn and DeMint would make for great political theater.

Cochran’s fellow Southerner and funding fiend is Richard Shelby (R-AL), the likely number three Republican appropriator in the next Congress. In July, Politico reported that over the past two years Shelby has gotten more than $250 million in earmarks for entities that hired his former staff as lobbyists. Last month, he joined with Cochran in voting against the earmark moratorium even though McConnell had endorsed the proposal.

Another returning appropriator who also voted “no” on the moratorium is Republican-but-about-to-be-Independent Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who characterized it as a mere “shell game” while promising to fight for Alaska’s “fair share” of federal spending. In appropriations-speak, “fair share” translates into “I’m grabbing every dollar I can get.”

The Cochran-Shelby-Murkowski triad gives McConnell a compelling reason to rebalance his side of the Appropriations Committee with Republicans who are unafraid to push back when their colleagues start gorging at the federal trough.

Shortly after the November election, McConnell said “the people are watching” to see if Republicans would live up to their commitment to cut spending. Just because Reid’s spending bill went down in flames last week is no reason for “we the people” to change the channel. We must stay attentive to see if McConnell means what he says — or is he a “yes, but” Republican who agrees with fiscal conservative principles in theory, but not in practice? We’ll know the answer very soon.

Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at joanne-butler@comcast.net.