founding fathers

Just Don't Call It an Earmark

"What's in it for me?"  That's been the time-honored question asked for centuries by politicians in the midst of heated negotiations.

Up until the last four years, one direct incentive Congressional leaders could use to cajole extra votes came in the form of earmarks. Members fought for and secured earmark dollars for local transportation and water projects, university research and economic development to address the needs of their district and solve local challenges.

The practice of earmarking also ensured federal resources were distributed across the country — from small rural communities to big metropolitan cities. Using earmarks as an incentive to support broader legislative compromise, congressional leaders could grease the gears to move legislative packages that weren't perfect but kept the government trains moving on time. It's a process that worked for decades. 

After the GOP wave election of 2010, the practice of earmarking came to an end.  Many new House GOP Members ran on a platform of eliminating wasteful spending — with earmark spending first and foremost in their crosshairs.

One unintended consequence many Republicans failed to aniticipate was how eliminating earmarks would change the balance of power in DC.  With earmarks gone, all grant funding decisions would reside solely with the Obama Administration, a realization that deeply annoys the most conservative Republicans. 

One pro-earmark Republican who saw this coming is Conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Here's what Inhofe recently wrote in a May 17 op-ed in the Tulsa World:

"What I warned America in late 2010 is proving true today: Eliminating earmarks has not saved taxpayers one dime. Instead our debt has increased by $4 trillion, and Congress is giving specified amounts of taxpayer dollars to the president so that he can spend it as he and his unelected bureaucrats so please. Republicans’ decision to cede power to the president through the earmark moratorium has made Congress less accountable, less transparent, and less responsible to its constituents."   

How About Congressional Oversight? 

It's taken some time, but after four years Congress is starting to develop ways to exercise renewed influence over the spending process. Two bills attracting overwhelming bipartisan support will require more congressional input and oversight over grant project selection. It's no surprise the two bills are infrastructure measures that typically would have been flooded with earmarks — the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the Transportation Reauthorization bill.

WRDA will be the first bill since the earmark ban to establish a creative process for project approvals through congressional review. The legislation is expected to pass this week. Here's how it is supposed to work: 

The Real Hastert Rule

Thumb through the U.S. Constitution and you won't find the Hastert Rule, which says no bill can come to the House floor unless there are enough votes to pass it in the majority caucus. Turns out former Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, said there never was a Hastert Rule.

This is relevant because current House Speaker John Boehner has invoked the Hastert Rule in blocking legislation that might attract enough Republicans and Democrats to pass, but doesn't have enough votes to pass with just Republicans.

Sound illogical? Perhaps, but it is the leverage exerted by the Tea Party faction of the House GOP conference. They have enough votes to deny Boehner the 218 vote-majority he needs of his fellow party members. This leverage is what has landed Congress in gridlock and led to a partial federal government shutdown, now entering its fourth day.

Republican spokesmen have made a lot out of President Obama and Senate Democrats refusing to negotiate to "find common ground" on defunding Obamacare. But another way to look at the stalemate is that the House is not letting is full membership exercise its collective judgment in deference to a minority that could be as few as 30 members.

Apart from the grandstanding and finger pointing on Capitol Hill, there is a valid question about whether the presumptive Hastert Rule is constitutional or at least in the spirit of the Constitution.

James Madison and other founding fathers detested what they called "factions." They worried that partisan considerations could overtake policy considerations. While senators have the right to filibuster any legislation of which they disapprove, no such privilege extends in the House.