The Republican Party is facing what Ronald Reagan called "a time for choosing." A real argument is raging over how much it should turn its back on the bad habits that cost it control of Congress in 2006.
Just after that debacle, Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens, the father of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," encountered Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the antipork crusader who had held up many of the projects so many members believe are the key to their re-election. Mr. Stevens said, "Well, Tom, I hope you're satisfied for helping us lose the election." Mr. Coburn replied, "No, Ted, you lost us this election."
The data favored Mr. Coburn: 2006 exit polls revealed that corruption in government was second only to the Iraq war as the driving force behind the Democratic takeover. A major part of that corruption was earmarks pork projects members often secure in secret. Earmarks were at the heart of the scandals that sent Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Calif. Rep. Duke Cunningham to jail.
This week's events further discredited the earmark culture. On Tuesday, Mr. Stevens, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, had to step down after being indicted for failing to report over $250,000 in gifts from a firm that sought earmarks from him. The day before, Republicans enjoyed a rare success when they beat back an attempt by Majority Leader Harry Reid to ram through an earmark-laden omnibus bill that Mr. Coburn had refused to help pass by the often-abused "unanimous consent" process.
Mr. Reid had wanted to get the $10 billion package passed without debate. But while containing some worthwhile projects, the "Tomnibus" bill a name picked to mock Mr. Coburn was also stuffed with money for the Smithsonian's orchid collection, a $5 million museum in Poland and a traveling exhibit on the War of 1812. Mr. Reid claimed his package merely authorized the spending of money rather than appropriated it and thus "doesn't cost a penny." Republicans ridiculed that logic and stood by Mr. Coburn, who says earmarks serve as "a gateway drug on the road to spending addiction."
Mr. Coburn notes that many members feel compelled to vote for bloated spending bills, fearing their local projects will be stripped out. But he says that with each new scandal, the political value of earmarks goes down: "If only one-tenth of one percent of the 15,000 earmarks we have involve corruption, that's 15 headlines a year Congress can't afford."
John McCain won the GOP nomination and retains support from independent voters today in part because he vows to veto any bill containing pork-barrel projects. Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, Mr. Coburn's antiearmark counterpart in the House, thinks voters in GOP districts are now disgusted enough to make the political costs to a member seeking pork greater than the benefits.
One reason Congress now has even lower approval numbers than in 2006 is the failure of Democrats to make good on their vow to clean up the earmark process. A "moratorium" on earmarks has been quietly set aside; and the Congressional Research Service has been directed by Congressional leaders to no longer respond to requests from members on the size, number or background of earmarks. "Democrats claim the earmarks will now be transparent, but they're taking away the very data that lets us know what's really happening," says South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. Democratic earmark reform, concludes Mr. Coburn, "not only failed to drain the swamp, but gave the alligators new rights."
Mr. Coburn's main point on earmarks is that senators must choose between a culture of parochialism and a culture that puts the national interest first. He stipulates that few members are corrupt, and that most go with the flow. He has even offered to release his holds on earmarks if their sponsors will propose reducing federal spending elsewhere, so "we aren't just dumping more debt on our kids."
His offer hasn't been popular. Included in the Reid package was $1.67 billion for ocean and coastal programs that were pet projects of Mr. Stevens. But the Alaska senator has refused to even discuss spending offsets to pay for what he calls "Stevens money." In 2005, there was so much "Stevens money" that Alaska snared almost $1,000 in earmarked federal funding for every resident, 30 times what went to the average state, based on population.
Mr. Stevens was a big reason the earmark culture had such a grip on Senate Republicans: Few dared risk his wrath. When he became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1997, he proudly proclaimed, "I'm a mean, miserable SOB." When Mr. Coburn dared challenge his $228 million "Bridge to Nowhere" in 2005, Mr. Stevens warned fellow senators "if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next."
In the House, GOP Rep. Don Young of Alaska the former Transportation Committee chair who stuffed the last highway bill with over 6,000 earmarks played a similar intimidation game. "Those who bite me will be bitten back," Mr. Young warned Rep. Scott Garrett last year. Mr. Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, had tried to kill a $34 million earmark sponsored by Mr. Young.
Now Mr. Stevens is almost certain to lose his Senate seat either through defeat or conviction on felony charges. And Mr. Young is trailing in Alaska's August 26 primary to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, a protégé of Alaska's reform Republican Gov. Sarah Pallin.
Here's hoping the removal of both men from Capitol Hill stiffens the spine of more Republicans to forswear the earmark culture.
They may not like it, but Mr. Coburn is showing Republicans how the GOP can return to its small government roots. Consider Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 vetoed a highway bill because it had a mere 121 earmarks in it.
Reagan quoted a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1796, warning that allowing Congress to spend federal money for local projects would set off "a scene of scramble among the members (for) who can get the most money wasted in their State, and they will always get most who are meanest." Reagan didn't think that represented good government or good politics. Republicans today should heed his warning.