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Thoughts on the Earmark Ban

1:48 PM, Nov 30, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Well, this is just depressing:

An effort by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to place a temporary ban on earmarks was defeated. The tally was 39 in favor and 56 against.

There were eight Republican votes against the earmark ban: Bennett of Utah, Cochran, Collins, Inhofe, Lugar, Murkowski, Shelby, and Voinovich.

We're only three weeks past one of the biggest midterm blowouts in American history -- one that happened largely because of outrage over government spending -- and 56 senators vote to keep earmarks. Including eight Republicans?  Yeesh. Two of these eight are retiring, but this is still just extraordinary. 

I hope congressional Republicans recognize the stakes for this 112th Congress. Even though there is little hope of major policy breakthroughs, they are exceedingly high. It's not just a matter of setting the 2012 election up nicely. The reputation of the Grand Old Party is on the line here. The Republican party has long been known as the party of fiscal responsibility. You vote for them not because you want to them to save the world -- that's what the liberal Democrats are for -- but because they're the serious fellows who insist on a balanced budget. Yet over the last couple of years the Republican Party in Congress has totally obliterated this image. And now they lose 20 percent of the Senate caucus over what is little more than a symbolic gesture on spending? That does not fill one with confidence.

Part of the problem is Congress. Actually, that's most of the problem. A "Republican member of Congress" is almost always more a "member of Congress" than a "Republican." The incentive structure in Congress is tilted toward local pandering and national irresponsibility. If you want to keep your job (and who doesn't?), you have to make this state or that district happy for two or six years. What about the country for the next decade? Well, that's not really your problem, is it? Multiply those incentives by 535, and you've got Congress -- a national body in the sense that everybody in the nation is represented there, but it isn't in the sense that there is somebody who represents the national interest. Because there mostly isn't. Remember, while the Founders installed Congress with the most power of any branch, they were so worried about congressional abuses that they split it into two branches, and they gave a (then unelected) president veto authority over it. Congress is a problem. It's a necessity, but it's also a problem.

The only person with the right kind of incentive structure is the president of the United States. He (and he alone) represents the national interest, and while he's up for reelection in four years, he also occupies the same office as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, so there is pressure on him to be remembered as a great chief executive.

This is a big reason why the Tea Party is going to have to continue the work it began this year into the 2012 primary battle. Every Republican candidate for president is going to claim to be a true conservative who will hold spending down. But not every one of them will be telling the truth! They'll tell conservatives what they want to hear next spring, then get into office and decide it's better to let the GOP Congress's pork barrel budget sail through. That can't be tolerated any more -- the long term reputation of the party is on the line, among other things -- and it's going to be up to grassroots conservatives to make sure the nominee will actually hold the line when he gets into office.

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