It's been years since federal agencies have screamed this loudly about fiscal discipline being imposed on them. GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have decided to take a stand against overspending by objecting to the nearly 10,000 earmarks, or member-sponsored pork projects, larded throughout the spending bills Congress is currently considering.
Their obstinacy has convinced the leadership of the departing Republican Congress that they probably won't be able to pass spending bills in next month's short lame-duck session. Instead, they are likely to pass a stopgap "continuing resolution," which will continue funding all programs at last year's level until the new Democratic Congress passes its own versions of the funding bills.
Mr. Coburn says the decision not to pass earmark-stuffed catchall spending bills could save taxpayers a cool $17 billion. All 10,000 earmarks in the pending bills will expire if they aren't passed by the end of the year. Mr. Coburn says the decision of the congressional leadership to instead go for a continuing resolution is a sign Republicans are learning some lessons from their stinging loss of Congress three weeks ago. "By either staying home or not voting Republican, many voters were sending a message that they don't want to give the spending favor factory that Congress had become their stamp of approval," Mr. Coburn says. "It's time that message was heeded."
Nonetheless, the cries of pain are mounting now that it looks as if many federal agencies will have to get by until late January or even later with the same amount of money they got last year. Of the 11 spending bills covering the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, only those governing defense and homeland security have become law. Appropriators are beside themselves that a continuing resolution that restrains spending is on the table. Rep. Jerry Lewis, who is ending his stint as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, calls it a "catastrophe." A spokeswoman for Mr. Lewis's Senate counterpart, Thad Cochran, says it is "irresponsible."
Overall federal spending has gone up by 49% since 2001, but you wouldn't know it from the anguished cries of those who regard ever-higher spending as some sort of birthright. A Congress Daily headline reads, "Agencies Say Long-Term CR Would Devastate Programs." The New York Times warns of "cuts in school breakfasts and shelter for the poor." Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who became a symbol of earmark excess in 2005 when he championed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," laments that several "very important" projects in his state stalled. "Some of it is money to help West Coast villages continue to recover from that bad storm they had in 2005 and earlier this year," he told reporters.
Nonsense, say Messrs. Coburn and DeMint. "Any agency that can't figure out how to function under a one-year CR is incompetent," a Coburn spokesman tells Congress Daily. "If appropriators took this seriously they wouldn't be wasting time earmarking and putting stoplights in their districts. The hypocrisy is astounding."
Some supporters of the Senate status quo may try to roll over objections to new spending bills and try to pass them anyway when Congress reconvenes on Dec. 4. If they do, Mr. Coburn and his allies already have over 40 amendments ready that would force senators to vote on authorizing individual pork barrel projects. "With Christmas around the corner, no senator wants to sit through that," says Andy Roth of the free-market Club for Growth.
That would leave the new Democratic Congress to decide if it is serious about its claims that it wants to reform the broken federal budget process. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the political maestro behind the Democratic takeover of the House, has a bill pending that would expose the earmark process to serious political sunlight but is already encountering resistance to it from Democratic spending barons.
On the Senate side, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois joined Mr. Coburn last year in successfully sponsoring a bill that created a publicly accessible database that will soon put information on every proposed earmark on the Internet. Mr. Obama recognizes that with the growth of entitlement spending, liberals will soon not have any money available to them for new federal programs unless they either pass politically risky tax increases or start curbing wasteful spending.
Some Republicans remain convinced the voters weren't rebelling against higher spending at all in this month's election. Rep. Don Young, the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation Committee and Sen. Stevens's Alaskan pork-barrel sidekick, told reporters this month that he thinks Mr. Coburn's criticisms of the Bridge to Nowhere and other infrastructure projects were one reason Republicans lost their majority. "He's been a spoiler from the get-go," said Mr. Young, who has been in Congress since 1973.
But Republicans would be wise to take any observations from Mr. Young with a shaker of salt. Last month he appeared to be the only political observer on the planet who didn't think Republicans were in trouble. An Associated Press story of Oct. 31 quoted Mr. Young as saying, "I'm predicting we're not going to lose any seats." He even bet pollster and KBYR talk radio host Ivan Moore a dinner on the outcome of the election. "We will not lose control of the House," the Anchorage Daily News quoted Mr. Young as saying. "It is not going to happen. . . . I'm going to be very happy election night."
Republicans wound up surrendering at least 30 House seats to Democrats, the greatest loss of any party since Democrats were swept out of power in 1994. Given how spectacularly wrong Mr. Young was, Republicans should now be leery when Mr. Young urges them to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.