By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Saying “the process of earmarking has become like a drug to many members of Congress,” U.S. Sen. Mark Udall announced Tuesday he would put a halt to his own earmark requests and joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling for a Senate vote on a “binding earmark moratorium” as soon as this week.
Udall’s self-imposed restriction — and the call he joined with fellow Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona — came the same day Republican senators approved a nonbinding caucus resolution urging GOP members to lay off earmarks for two years.
While Udall admitted the $16 billion worth of earmarked spending in last year’s federal budget is a tiny slice of total spending, amounting to about one-half of one percent — and an earmark ban wouldn’t reduce spending, just change the way it’s allocated — he said banning earmarks is a crucial step.
“Earmark reform is a significant step in the right direction to get our fiscal matters under control,” Udall said from Washington, D.C. in a conference call with reporters. He said members of Congress become afraid of losing the power of the purse over local projects and then “feel pressured to support vicious cycle of increased funding.” After chasing all the money for their districts or states, “holding government accountable is almost an after-thought,” he said.
“The American people want us to show them we’re serious,” Udall said. He recounted efforts he’s made over the years to rein in spending, from proposing a line-item presidential veto to requiring new spending be paid for, but said he has concluded that “ultimately, controlling spending is going to take restraint from each and every one of us.”
Still, he added, “I’m not under any apprehension this will be easy.”
Udall’s moratorium could affect which particular federally funded projects get the money in Colorado but won’t have much impact, if any, on the amount of federal dough flowing into the state. Of the roughly $9 billion in federal grants spent in Colorado last year, Udall estimated only 1 percent was allocated through the congressional earmark process. (If none of the money had been earmarked, it still would have been spent, though not necessarily on the same land acquisition, military hardware or research projects, among other purchases.)
Even if he stops inserting earmarks into spending bills, Udall said he’d still have a hand steering federal spending in the state.
“There are many steps that can be taken,” Udall said. “I’m going to work with the administration so that when they’re drafting their budgets, they’ll include funding for the state’s highways, bridges and roads. And I’ll redouble my efforts during the federal grants process to advocate for districts and municipalities in the state.” He added that that his office has “a senior staffer who works solely on that process.” And if that doesn’t do the trick, he said, “I can write a grant bill if any needs go unmet.”
Earmarks — requests made by lawmakers to spend money on specific projects, bypassing other methods the government uses to determine how to spend allocated funds — have been a hot potato this year amid concerns over deficit spending, and the heat has only risen as Republicans prepare to take over the House of Representatives and weaken the Democratic majority in the Senate after this month’s elections.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet wasn’t ready to endorse his fellow Democrat’s proposal, though an aide to the lawmaker pointed out Bennet has been up front with earmark-reform proposals of his own.
“Earlier this year Michael introduced a bill to significantly increase the transparency and accountability of all earmark requests,” said Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi in a statement to The Colorado Statesman.
“He has the most transparent and accountable process of anyone in the United States Senate, posting every single funding request he receives and makes. He also doesn’t request any earmarks on behalf of for-profit entities. With the economy a top priority, Michael will review this and any other proposal to reduce the deficit and help strengthen our economic recovery.”
The senators who joined Udall calling for a Senate vote on the moratorium described their proposal in similar terms to the ones Udall used.
“I’ve been working to change the earmark culture in Washington since the day I was sworn in, but frankly it’s been a lonely fight for Senators like Dr. Coburn, Senator McCain and me until very recently,” McCaskill said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see so many new faces join this effort over the last few days and I am excited to work with them in finally ending the flawed practice of earmarks. The truth is that earmarks are simply not a good way to spend tax dollars — I believe that funding should always be based on merit, not politics.”
McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is facing a tough re-election bid in 2012 in a state that went heavily Republican in the recent election, has been inveighing against earmarks for some time, but McCain has made it a signature issue.
“The time has come for Congress to put a stop to the corrupt practice of earmarking once and for all,” said McCain in a statement. “Every time Congress passes an earmark laden appropriations bill we are robbing future generations of their ability to attain the American dream. This is simply immoral. And it is, of course, unconscionable to waste money in these difficult times on pork barrel projects that have little purpose other than to improve the re-election prospects of their authors.”
Asked to assess the chances of passing an earmark ban — covering three budget cycles, including the current one, according to the proposal Udall and his cohorts submitted — in the lame-duck congressional session that started this week, Udall sounded more hopeful than optimistic.
Saying he has discussed it with some of his colleagues and heard “an expression of interest,” he pointed out there are big obstacles to a moratorium. “It’s no secret more senior members and other members of appropriations committees are treated better than other members” when it comes to the ability to earmark spending, he said. “I’m hoping to lead by example and show my colleagues there is life after earmarks.”