Transparency Killed The Earmarking Stars?

How often do omnibus spending bills go down to defeat?  Approximately … never, as Dave Weigel reminds us, and pork is usually the reason why.  Not only do omnibus bills appear only when the budgeting process has failed and funding becomes an urgent issue, they also get so large and stuffed with perks that few dare to challenge them.

In this case, though, earmark reformers got the edge thanks to the series of measures designed to impose transparency on pork requests.   While some insisted that these reforms were toothless, they finally took a big, big bite out of Congress — perhaps especially Senate Republicans, whose pork requests clashed badly with their anti-spending rhetoric during the midterms.  After getting openly challenged on hypocrisy, GOP leadership changed course and whipped Republican appropriators to abandon their pork and created a historic, perhaps seminal moment in government spending:

My first take on the omnibus bill, and on these Republican stumbles that happened because of the bill, didn’t really explain what would happen if the bill was withdrawn. That was because omnibus bills aren’t withdrawn like this, just like appropriations bills aren’t usually stymied and fumbled for the entirety of legislative sessions. It was also because, until yesterday, there was some advantage for Republicans getting money sent back to their districts. Every House Republican voted against the stimulus bill, for example, but plenty of Republicans participated in ribbon-cutting ceremonies or factory walk-arounds in places that got stimulus cash.

We should have see this coming, though. The increasing transparency of the earmark process was going to make it tougher for Republicans to support this bill and get away with it. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that currently motivates most Republicans to send money back home. …

It’s extremely important that earmarking has become a more transparent process, and that it’s now easy to call out members for their requests before bills are voted on. Look at the context, though. Earmarks are only the easiest way to nail members for doing what has never really been controversial — appropriating. Republican voters, and a considerable number of independents, don’t want their representatives to shuffle around money anymore. The aggressive centralized government of 2009, pumping money into states and districts, is gone, and there’s no political will to recreate it.

If a two-month continuing resolution passes, as Republicans now want, it would fall to the new Republican House to create a budget very soon. That means the new Budget chairman, Paul Ryan, will get the opportunity to start cutting back the budget along the lines of the roadmap he’s been talking about since 2009. And there’s no question anymore as to whether Republicans will have the determination to make cuts, or whether transparency and exposure will keep them honest about this.

Two forces produced this outcome — transparency and public pressure.  Porkbusters who pushed hard for the transparency reforms hoped to build momentum for the latter, which the Tea Party provided, perhaps more as a byproduct than a primary consideration.  Tea Party activists want a reduction in overall spending and certainly see pork as a symptom of corrupt business practices.  For years, though, we have been told that pork itself is irrelevant to spending and too small for rational consideration.

However, this result vindicates the efforts of Porkbusters.  When the outrage became high enough and transparency identified the offenders, the porkers abandoned their earmarks.  As a result, we will see a reduction in spending, thanks to the new GOP majority in the House.  The omnibus spending bill, chock-full of not just earmarks but funding for big-government programs, won’t be passed into law after all.  Without pork, legislators will have no incentive to pass massive new spending by excusing it with self-promoting home district projects any longer, and the overall spending itself will become the focus — as it should have been all along.

The system worked.  This was always going to be a long game on pork reform, and this is the first fruits of an effort started years ago.  We need to enhance both the transparency and the pressure to make sure that our elected officials get the message and mend their ways, or find themselves out of a job.