Earlier today, I spoke with Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), and got into a bit of a debate with him over the issue of earmarks. Last Friday, Inhofe offered a spirited defense of Congressional privilege in the National Journal (subscription required), using a separation-of-powers argument that has some merit:

Inhofe argues that earmarks have funded many programs that conservatives support, particularly in national defense. As the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, behind McCain, Inhofe notes that Congress has used earmarks to keep several military programs chugging along despite executive branch objections, including additional C-17 cargo planes that President Obama fought against last year. McCain offered an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill that would have nixed the funds for the extra planes, but Inhofe and 63 other senators defeated it.

Instead of imposing an earmark moratorium, Inhofe proposes a freeze in nonsecurity appropriations at fiscal 2008 levels, a move that he says would save $600 billion more than Obama’s proposal in February to freeze such spending at fiscal 2010 levels. He also maintains that individual projects should be assessed on their merits, not on whether they are deemed to be earmarks. …

Inhofe said that if Congress bans earmarks, his fallback position is that they should be defined only as projects that receive appropriations without having been previously authorized by Congress. Inhofe is a chief authorizer — for transportation programs at the Environment and Public Works Committee and for military programs at the Armed Services Committee. He and other authorizers regularly struggle for power with appropriators, who often have their own ideas about which projects to fund in their annual spending bills.

He and I disagreed on this issue, but I do acknowledge the balance-of-power issue, and Inhofe acknowledges the abuse, especially when it comes to no-bid contracting. It’s a good debate, one which will get more visibility as earmark bans proceed in both chambers.

However, we agree on most other issues, including runaway federal spending and skyrocketing deficits. We also talk about global warming, the closure of Gitmo, and Eric Holder’s failure to disclose his amicus brief to the Senate:

Inhofe is launching the HELP Act today. The following release is from Inhofe’s office:

Citing out-of-control deficit spending by the federal government, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) today introduced the Honest Expenditure Limitation Program (HELP) Act of 2010 to rein in government spending. The act, co-sponsored by Sens. Burr (R-N.C.) and Barrasso (R-Wy.), would result in nearly $900 billion in savings over a 10 year period.

“If we do nothing to curtail skyrocketing government spending, or merely freeze it at artificially elevated levels for a few years, as President Obama proposes, we will find ourselves in a tragic situation,” Inhofe said. “The clock is ticking. Congress must act. By reducing non-security discretionary spending levels to 2008 levels, and then holding them there through 2020, our nation can save nearly $900 billion. My HELP Act saves $634 billion more than President Obama’s spending freeze proposal, and is a serious approach to our growing fiscal crisis.”

Barrasso said, “The American people realize the debt is the threat. President Obama hasn’t demonstrated he understands the seriousness of our current situation. Even though he has made a lot of promises about reducing the deficit, his budget contains unprecedented levels of wasteful spending. We need fewer grand promises and fewer wasteful programs. The Administration and Congress must make tough decisions to reduce America’s massive deficit. The HELP Act is an important piece of legislation that will help ensure our children and grandchildren’s hopes and dreams are not buried in debt.”

Burr said, “Our current fiscal path is unsustainable, and I believe it is morally wrong for us to saddle the next generation with a massive national debt. This bill, which could save taxpayers almost $900 billion over the next decade by capping federal spending, is a big step in the right direction to reining in Washington’s out of control spending habits.”

FACTS ABOUT THE HELP ACT

Ø The proposal would freeze discretionary spending at FY08 levels for all “non-security” appropriations, which exclude Defense, Homeland Security, State, Veterans Administration, and national security functions of Energy.

Ø The spending freeze at the 2008 level would be phased in over 5 years from FY11 to FY15, reducing the cap by an equal percentage each year. From FY15 to FY20, the cap would remain at the FY08 level until the legislation expires at the end of FY20.

Ø The freeze would be enforced through sequestration. Any total non-security appropriations enacted that breach the FY08 cap would be tallied by the Office of Management and Budget and excess amounts above the cap would be rescinded through an across-the-board cut by the Administration (compelled by law). This proposal would ensure that a major portion of the federal budget is subjected to a credible and effective spending restraint.

Ø A 67-vote Point Of Order in the Senate would be triggered by any appropriations bill that causes the total non-security discretionary cap for a Fiscal Year to be breached. It would also be triggered by a provision in any legislation, amendment, or conference report that attempted to legislatively exempt new spending from sequestration. The type of sequestration process this proposal contemplates existed in the 1990s with limited success because Congress would routinely use legislation to exempt new spending from the process. The Point Of Order would make doing so much more difficult.

Ø Spending for overseas military operations would be exempt from the cap.

Ø Using the Obama Administration’s own numbers and assumptions, this proposal would save $634 billion more than enacting Obama’s proposed spending freeze by 2020, and it would save close to $900 billion over the same 10 years compared to doing nothing.

Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence are pursuing another approach to the same goal, a cap on federal spending to 20% of GDP. Conservatives on Capitol Hill are going to make spending and deficits a big issue in November — and this time, the voters may be ready for some action.

Tags: Barack Obama