Over the weekend, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an earmark opponent, posted this message on Twitter: "Which is worse, a party that doesn't ban all earmarks in an election year, or party who bans them only in an election year?" It's a fair question.
In March, House Republicans enacted a voluntary, unilateral one-year ban on earmarks--and they largely kept their promise. Of the 1,081 earmarks approved by the House since the ban was adopted, only seven were requested by Republicans. The ban was designed to send a signal to voters that Republicans would not go back to their free-spending ways if given the reins of power again.
But as Election Day draws closer, House Republicans are sending voters a very different signal--they are backing off the earmark ban. The GOP's Pledge to America was conspicuously silent when it came to banning earmarks. And in August, Rep. Eric Cantor--the leading candidate for House majority leader should Republicans take control--told Politico that the GOP might roll back the ban, but that "if there are earmarks, there will be an earmark process that will ensure we're doing everything we can to show the people that their dollars are not being wasted."
Rep. John Boehner, the Republican speaker-in-waiting, has refused to say whether the earmark ban will continue. When I asked Boehner at the American Enterprise Institute last week why the ban wasn't in the pledge, he replied: "The pledge was about a legislative agenda that can be enacted today. We've already taken care of today. There is an earmark moratorium in place. It will be up to the next Congress [whether to continue that moratorium]. But I am here to tell you that we are not going to see earmarks as we've seen in the past under a Republican majority if I'm the speaker of the House."
Boehner has credibility on earmarks--in two decades in Congress he has never asked for one. But this personal opposition to earmarks, and his leadership in enacting the one-year ban, makes the failure to promise its continuation all the more glaring.
The fact is that Republican leaders in the House are looking toward a compromise on earmarks that would fall short of a total ban. Those advocating such a compromise say that while a Republican majority will make sure we never see another "Bridge to Nowhere," the GOP also must not cede the power of the purse to the liberals in the Obama administration. But banning all earmarks does not require Congress to cede this constitutional authority. If it did, why did the GOP agree to a complete earmark ban this year? By this logic, Democrats were upholding the Constitution by refusing to go along.
An earmark ban would not stop Congress from deciding how money is spent or what programs get funded. What it would do is stop funds from being doled out to specific companies in specific congressional districts based on the whims of a committee chairman rather than a merit-based process.
The only ones who lose power in this scenario are lobbyists who no longer get to drop special provisions into legislation directing taxpayer money to their clients and the lawmakers who can't use earmarks for fundraising or campaign commercials.
Another argument from Republicans who advocate a compromise is that getting rid of earmarks would make it harder for the GOP to block implementation of Obamacare. But the way to block this law is through funding limitations ("no funds in this act may be used for X"), not earmarks. Congress can defund Obamacare while banning earmarks at the same time.
While House Republicans may be wavering on an earmark ban, Senate Republicans are increasingly likely to enact one come January. In March, 25 Republican senators--including GOP leader Mitch McConnell--voted on the floor to ban all earmarks.
At least five Senate opponents of such a ban--Judd Gregg, Bob Bennett, George Voinovich, Kit Bond and Jim Bunning--will not be returning to the Senate come January (six, if Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign fails).
Meanwhile, a new crop of senators may soon be arriving who have pledged on the campaign trail to forswear earmarks. They range from Tea Party-backed candidates such as Ken Buck, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee and Joe Miller to establishment candidates such as Mark Kirk, Dan Coats, Carly Fiorina and Kelly Ayotte. With the addition of newly elected earmark opponents, the Senate Republican Conference could adopt a unilateral ban on earmarks in the next Congress--so long as the senators who publicly supported such a ban on the floor don't change their votes when they get behind closed doors.
As for the House, the old bulls grudgingly accepted a few months of forced earmark rehabilitation this year--but once they get out of rehab, these Lindsay Lohan Republicans will try to go right back to their old ways. The last time the GOP held power, the number of earmarks grew from 1,300 to more than 13,000. In the face of this record, promises of moderation are not enough--total abstinence is required. House Republican leaders need to answer forthrightly: Will they ban earmarks if they win the majority?
Voters have a right to know--before Election Day.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.