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John Thune's Earmark Conundrum

4:45 PM, Nov 11, 2010 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Ben Smith has a good piece on John Thune’s vulnerabilities as a 2012 presidential candidate. Smith’s post raises the central question: Is Thune too “establishment” for the current political environment?

John Thune's Earmark Conundrum

That question is surfacing well before the start of real 2012 policy jockeying thanks to an effort by Senator Jim DeMint to reinvigorate his push for a moratorium on earmarks. DeMint is pushing for a vote on the moratorium next week. Several of his colleagues in the GOP caucus, including some of its leaders, are pushing back. And Senator Jim Inhofe, the conservative from Oklahoma, after “weeks of planning,” is launching a “campaign” to save earmarks, according to an article in the Tulsa World.

Some of the opposition to DeMint’s proposal is pro-earmark. Some of it is anti-DeMint. The net result is something even the most optimistic Democratic strategists could not have imagined: One week after Republicans scored historic victories in the 2010 mid-term elections thanks to growing concern about the size and scope of government, prominent Republicans are spending their time and resources defending earmarks – often in public.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD is contacting Senate offices in an effort to put together a running tally of support for DeMint’s moratorium. The response so far is not encouraging. Some offices have not responded to our inquiries and several others have provided only vague statements about earmarks.

John Thune is in a tough spot. He has been a defender of earmarks but also a supporter of an earmark moratorium. In an interview with me in August, he specifically mentioned “the DeMint amendment” and reiterated his support for it. “I think we ought to completely stop it for a while and figure out what we’re going to do,” said Thune.

Yesterday, however, RedState.com’s Erick Erickson reported that Thune has been quietly trying to build opposition to the DeMint moratorium, citing multiple sources. Thune’s office issued a flat denial and added: “He has supported a moratorium in the past and continues to do so.” But, as Ben Smith notes, Thune has not committed to supporting this earmark moratorium. That would be easy enough to do, of course, and it’s telling that he won’t.

Some context. In an interview for a profile that ran in THE WEEKLY STANDARD in September, Thune talked about earmarks and spending. I had covered a speech that Thune gave at the Heritage Foundation. In it, he described his proposal for budget reform and then took questions, including a skeptical query about Thune’s practice of seeking earmarks for South Dakota.

Thune responded by explaining that he’d reduced his earmark requests by 57 percent since 2008 and offering a tentative defense of the practice—something that won him no fans in a gathering of movement conservatives. 

I asked Thune about this. “Like I said at that deal—and I probably should have left it at that—I have voted for the moratorium. I do think that we ought to take a timeout and figure out how we’re going to deal with this issue.”

The problem isn’t spending, Thune says, but corruption. “There is a correlation between earmarks and corruption. And there are countless examples, unfortunately, in the past few years of people who were trading earmarks for political favors and that sort of thing and also using earmarks to buy votes from particular constituencies.”

He continued: “The people who support earmarks, and there are quite a few of them on the Republican side too, who believe that not doing so enables the Obama administration to decide where the money goes and that the real focus ought to be the topline number. If eliminating earmarks actually reduced spending it would be one thing, but they don’t—once the topline is set then everybody is kind of underneath that trying to figure out how to distribute money and some is done by congressional direction and some is done by formula and some is done through the administration.”

Here is the entire exchange. I asked him about his comments at the Heritage Foundation, his thoughts on an earmark moratorium, his efforts to cut back his own earmark requests and whether he can get those requests to zero. His response:

Well, I think we could but we’ve got so many things right now – what makes it difficult for me is we have authorized projects that are midstream in funding. And it depends entirely how you define “earmark.” But some people define earmarks to include authorized projects that are in the middle of the funding stream and we have a couple of water projects here in South Dakota that are halfway done. And we appropriate money for those every year and those are considered by the people who are really the purists on the earmark issue to be earmarks. So I can’t, there’s no way, with the commitments that I have made – a lot of these water projects I authorized as a member of the House – and so once you complete those things that are in the funding stream already, then I think you could get to a point where you could do away with them. Now, like I said at that deal – and I probably should have left it at that – I have voted for the moratorium. I do think that we ought to take a timeout and figure out how we’re going to deal with this issue.

The people who support earmarks, and there are quite a few of them on the Republican side too, who believe that not doing so enables the Obama administration to decide where the money goes and that the real focus ought to be the topline number. If earmarks actually reduced spending it would be one thing but they don’t – once the topline is set then everybody is kind of underneath that trying to figure out how to distribute money and some is done by congressional direction and some if done by formula and some is done through the administration. But it’s a complicated issue for that reason. Part of it comes down to how you define them and I do think that all these suggestions about projects having to be authorized, projects having to be passed – appropriated – through both Houses of Congress, that they not be dropped into any conference, all those are the sorts of things that I think are really important reforms. But I’m not convinced, I guess, at least at this point that the real issue isn’t the topline number. I think that’s where we’ve got to attack spending. You’ve got to hit it there. If you don’t attack the topline, then we’re not going to reduce spending overall anyway, we’re just going to change who decides how it’s spent – the administration versus Congress. So that’s an ongoing debate within our conference and the reason Republicans are conflicted about it, too, is that there are a lot of Republicans who don’t want to give up control to the Obama administration and allow them to decide how our money gets spent. I do think the bigger issue with earmarks, however, in my view, is not that it reduces spending but that there is a correlation between earmarks and corruption. And there are countless examples, unfortunately, in the past few years of people who were trading earmarks for political favors and that sort of thing and also using earmarks to buy votes from particular constituencies. That is the bigger issue to it and that’s why I supported the moratorium and I think we ought to completely stop it for a while and figure out what we’re going to do. It’s the DeMint Amendment, which we’ve voted on a number of times, but we haven’t been able to pass it. But if we could get things that are halfway done, done – then I’d be in a much better position to – 

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