It’s the earmarks

Michael A. Needham & Tim Chapman Heritage Action for America
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For many conservatives, the two-year moratorium on the practice of earmarking was the signature accomplishment of the new Republican House majority. Prior to the moratorium, the proliferation of earmarks notoriously greased the legislative skids for massive big-spending legislation, empowered lobbyists and led to corruption. Now, a minor skirmish over miscellaneous tariff bills is being used by the Washington establishment to reopen that moratorium and roll back conservative advances.

Despite the public outcry against the status quo, Washington’s old bulls were never supportive of the earmark moratorium. They went along because they knew they could not withstand the political clout of a newly reinvigorated conservative movement, but being creatures of Washington, the old bulls waited patiently, knowing that there are no permanent victories in this town.

Their opportunity to revisit the moratorium came sooner rather than later. Just 16 months after the moratorium took effect they spotted their opening: miscellaneous tariff bills.

It was the perfect issue. Few Washington insiders knew what a miscellaneous tariff bill (MTB) was, and even fewer Americans had ever heard the acronym. It is also fair to say many lawmakers failed to realize MTBs of “limited” benefit were included in the House earmark moratorium, which also includes member-directed spending and targeted tax benefits that needlessly complicate the tax code.

If the old bulls could get conservative and freshmen lawmakers to sign on to an MTB bill, they could create and thus exploit a crack in the earmark moratorium and begin making the case for a return to earmarking. There is honest disagreement over whether MTBs should have ever been included in the definition of earmarks, but the simple fact is that if they benefit 10 or fewer companies they are covered by the existing moratorium.

Republicans included “limited” MTBs in the earmark definition because the process of requesting an MTB, the lobbyist involvement and potential for corruption, are similar. Alarmingly, the Ways and Means Committee is asking lawmakers to self-certify that their requests are not in violation of the very specific language of the moratorium. It is a nearly impossible task for small congressional offices, which must then rely on the assertions of the very lobbyists whose companies would benefit from the sought-after MTB.

The damage MTB’s are causing to the earmark moratorium is clear. Even as members of the Ways and Means Committee make the argument that the MTB bill does not reopen the earmark ban, House Appropriators Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and appropriations cardinal Jack Kingston (R-GA) are making the argument in the press that it does open up the moratorium.

Still others are clamoring to scrap the moratorium altogether. In a closed-door conference, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL) advocated a return to earmarking, something he said was “very well embraced” by his GOP colleagues.

Unfortunately, the old bulls have turned the current legislative fight over tariffs into a proxy battle over earmarks. And regardless of where conservatives stand on MTBs, there can be no doubt that opening up the earmark moratorium would have wide-ranging consequences on both policy and politics.

Earmarks grease the skids by — for all intents and purposes — buying the votes of individual lawmakers who would not otherwise vote in favor of a specific bill. The $30 billion in taxpayer bailouts for the disastrous 2005 highway bill — with its 6,300 earmarks — should serve as a stark reminder for congressional Republicans of how disastrous policy can become law.

While Democrats and President Obama have taken delight as House Republicans suffer some legislative setbacks on big-ticket items like the transportation bill, it pales in comparison to the embarrassment and political peril of simply reopening or ignoring the earmark ban.

Already, the Democrat-aligned political groups are exploiting what the press is describing as a flip-flop by Republicans, many of whom are freshmen in tough races. Not only do earmarks hand Democrats a political weapon, reversing the moratorium would also serve to depress conservatives who will be desperately needed at the polls in November.

In order to win big in November, conservatives must be committed to bold reforms that limit the size and scope of the federal government. Those reforms will never happen if Congress — and the members most naturally committed to limited government — return to business-as-usual legislating and self-dealing. Congress needs to live by the earmark moratorium it put in place and pursue the necessary goal of comprehensive tariff reduction.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America and Tim Chapman is the chief operating officer of Heritage Action for America (heritageaction.com).