House GOP “No New Earmarks” Pledge Nice, But Rings Hollow

Last night House Minority Leader John Boehner, together with nine other party leaders, took a pledge to drop the practice of earmarks in Congressional appropriations…

“For millions of Americans, the earmark process in Congress has become a symbol of a broken Washington. We believe the time has come for House Republicans to adopt an immediate, unilateral moratorium on all earmarks, including tax and tariff-related earmarks, and we will support changing the official rules of the House Republican Conference to incorporate such a moratorium when a special conference meeting on the matter takes place Thursday. When Republicans take back the House, we will rein in out-of-control federal spending and bring fundamental change to the process by which Congress spends American taxpayers’ money.”

It’s a welcome statement, as the practice of earmarking is one which has infuriated taxpayers all over the country who have little interest in seeing their hard-earned wages funding empty airports in Western Pennsylvania, studies of gay Argentine bar patrons or roadside fish sculptures in Oregon; while not all wasteful government expenditures are earmarks and not all earmarks constitute objectionable expenditures, Boehner is correct that Congress’ inability to pass legislation without it being larded up with payoffs and plunder for wayward senators and congressmen is part and parcel of a dysfunctional legislative system.

Here’s the problem, though – while the earmark pledge is welcome, and it’s both good politics and good policy, the Republicans don’t have any credibility with it.

Is earmarking totally out of control with this Democrat-led Congress? Beyond any doubt, yes. Have Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid blown away any sense of restraint with respect to earmarks and overall spending? For certain. They’ve turned what was a completely irresponsible Republican Congress into the pillar of fiscal virtue by comparison in only three years since taking control in January of 2007 – and the nation’s economy has receded to a low tide not seen since the 1970’s (if not longer) under their watch.

So the nation’s voters look poised to return control of the House – and quite possibly the Senate as well – to the Republicans. But they’re not going to do so blindly. Boehner’s group from last night, which included Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN), Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), Conference Vice-Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Conference Secretary John Carter (R-TX), National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), Rules Committee Ranking Republican David Dreier (R-CA), Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Republican Leadership Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), was a pretty responsible bunch and there is little reason to doubt their individual sincerity. But House Republicans have a record, and voters remember how poorly the party performed when Denny Hastert was the Speaker. There is a reason why all too many voters across the fruited plain consider both parties to be the same in their fiscal irresponsibility.

Still, a no-earmark pledge can’t hurt the GOP’s chances in the fall. It’s going to be seen as a gimmick by a lot of the voters out there, but you can’t fulfill a promise until you make one in the first place. Today when the House Conference officially adopts a rule banning them, it would be nice for the statement it releases to both admit the sin of abusing earmarks when the GOP controlled Congress and also to repudiate the style of governance which allowed the abuses to happen.

The cold-turkey nature of the pledge is also a little over the top. Nobody expects congressmen to give up on providing federal swag for their districts; in fact, all too many voters have been conditioned to think that’s what we send them to Washington for. What might have been a better idea would be to swear off earmarking until such time as the federal budget was put into the black – ultimately, it’s a balanced budget the voters truly care about more than the fact Congress might waste some of our money.

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