The proposed earmark moratorium that the Republican Senate caucus will vote on tomorrow has pitted Oklahoma's two conservative senators against one another. "Republicans can send a signal that they get it," earmark opponent Tom Coburn tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "Or they can send a signal that they continue to not get it and say they're not going to change. And if they do that, they're going to pay for it at the ballot box."
Should Republicans who oppose the moratorium be worried about a primary challenge? "You bet," says Coburn. "They sure should."
"If you can't fix earmarks, you're never going to fix the other problems that are wrong with this country."
But earmark supporter Jim Inhofe says that earmarks have been demagogued--abolishing them, he says, wouldn't save money and would cede Congress's constitutional spending authority to the executive branch. In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Inhofe blasted the proposed earmark moratorium as the "Obama-DeMint-McCain" plan and said it doesn't matter if Republicans suffer electoral consequences. "If that's the result, it's the result of people saying things that are dishonest, which I can't do," says Inhofe. The alternative to supporting earmarks "would be to join in the untruths," he says, likening criticism of earmarks to criticism of global warming skepticism.
Inhofe explains one reason he supports earmarks with the following example:
"When the budget came over from the president he had on there a type of launch system that cost $300 million. ... However we have a greater need for 6 additional F-18 fighter jets. And we took the $300 million and scratched off his launch system and put down [the fighter jets]. Technically, under the definitions that the House and the Senate are embracing, we would not be able to do that because these F-18s would be considered to be an earmark."
But Coburn says that's simply not correct. "Take the debate over the F-22 ... or the second engine for the F-35. Those aren't earmarks. Those are policy decisions associated with appropriations," he says. Banning earmarks would prohibit senators or congressmen from legislating that a particular weapons system must be built by a particular company in a particular district.
"That's the most bogus argument," says Inhofe. "Everybody knows where all these vehicles are made." That may be true of particular weapons systems but that doesn't apply to many items that are earmarked. For example, Congressman David Wu of Oregon earmarked money for a particular company--that donated to his campaign--to manufacture special t-shirts for the Marines. But it turned out that the fabric "melts to the skin under intense heat, causing serious burns." If earmarks were banned, that project and would have been competitively bid on. And while the Pentagon--i.e. the executive branch--would direct the funding, Coburn says that Congress would not cede its authority. "This is not a debate about whether members of Congress can control spending--they can if they do oversight," he says. Inhofe will introduce a plan today that he says will clean up the earmark process and cut spending.
Another argument from earmark supporters is that individual congressmen or senators know better where to spend money on particular roads or transportation projects in their home districts than some bureaucrat in Washington, but earmark opponents say the money could simply be block-granted to the states.
Or even better, "How about not sending the money here in the first place?" says Coburn. "Why not devolve it to the states? We'll just keep our taxes and take care of our own roads. Oklahoma's been a donor state since I was a boy. We're building bicycle paths in Minnesota, when we need 90,000 bridges repaired in Oklahoma. I mean, give me a break."
So why do lawmakers want to continue to earmark? "It's the politicians' addiction to spending and power," says Coburn. "Earmarks overall are a stupid thing to do even though there are a lot of good ones and a lot of them have helped a lot of people. The whole process turns federal government upside down. It says we're going to send money to Washington so we can send it back home."
But Coburn says he has no hard feelings toward Oklahoma's senior senator: "We've agreed to disagree. I love Jim Inhofe. We just have a different philosophy on this. I think he's a dang good senator."