In a rare display of bipartisanship, U.S. senators of both parties came together on the last day of November to defeat a proposed ban on earmarks, 56-39. Eight Republicans joined Democrats, including Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, in opposing the measure, which would have put a halt to the controversial lawmaker-directed spending that has come to signify, in the rhetoric of this year’s campaigns, the problems plaguing the federal budget.
Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, who joined fellow Republicans in banning earmarks in the next Congress, and who in March swore off earmarks in a symbolic stance against federal spending, immediately issued a statement disparaging the senate vote.
“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, the powers that be in the U.S. Senate voted to continue business as usual in Washington,” Rehberg said. “Unfortunately, there are aren’t enough votes yet in the Senate to uphold the will of the people and ban earmarks. America is facing a very serious fiscal problem that’s going to require tough decisions and real leadership.”
In defending their vote, however, Baucus and Tester stated emphatically that a ban on earmarks would do nothing to alleviate those problems to which Rehberg referred, and that eliminating earmarks would simply put Montana at a stark disadvantage.
“This bill would take away support our state relies on and cost Montana jobs,” Baucus said. “I was proud to stand up for Montana and vote against this bill to deny our state the support it needs.”
All of which raises questions as to why there has been so much focus on earmarks as an indicator of fiscal responsibility, particularly after President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress reached a tentative deal last week that could add $900 billion to the federal deficit over the next two years, according to some forecasts. The week before, a plan by Obama’s debt reduction commission to cut $4 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade failed to gain enough votes from its members to go to Congress. (Baucus was among seven members on the commission to vote against its final proposal, calling the recommendations anti-rural.)
Earmarks, however, account for about one-half of 1 percent of federal spending, completely dwarfed by priorities like healthcare, social security and defense. Earmarks don’t necessarily increase federal spending; they specify how the executive branch, in the form of federal agencies, will spend money already allocated to it. By most measures, Montana ranks among the top states, on a per capita basis, for federal earmark spending. In a Nov. 23 letter Baucus sent Rehberg, he pointed to estimates from the Montana Legislature showing federal dollars accounted for 43.5 percent of the state’s general fund in fiscal year 2010.
In an interview with the Beacon last week, Tester offered what he described as “a little dose of reality” as to why the debate over earmarks isn’t going away: “It’s one of these issues that’s poll-driven,” Tester said. “Bring it up, it sounds good, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
Like Baucus, Tester said doing away with lawmaker-directed spending confers more authority on federal agencies with less knowledge of the worth of Montana projects for funding. And it could put senators from rural states, with fewer residents, at a disadvantage to more populous states – that possess more electoral votes – when a president looking ahead to reelection is considering priorities for projects.
“It takes power away from me, and gives it to the Obama Administration,” Tester said. “If you look at what’s going on back here, if you want to take the legs out of rural America, this is a good way to do it.”
He went on to point to his amendment last summer cutting $25 per week from unemployment benefits, at a savings of $6 billion, as an example of his credentials reducing spending.
“If you want to save money, let’s save money,” Tester said. “Let’s not do things that look good but don’t do anything.”
Rehberg, on the other hand, doesn’t see an earmark ban as some kind of election-year gimmick, but as a way to begin a more comprehensive overhaul of federal spending.
“Over 10 years, we can save $165 billion by applying earmark savings to the debt,” Jed Link, Rehberg’s spokesman, said. “Denny doesn’t think that’s a distraction. Ending earmarks is more important than the mere dollar amount because earmarks create and sustain a culture of spending that makes broader spending reform virtually impossible. That’s why Denny calls this a first step toward eliminating the debt.”
And it’s an issue Rehberg, who easily won a sixth term last month, believes he’s on the right side of, pointing to polls that show a majority of Montanans support a ban on earmarks.
“Montanans overwhelmingly supported Denny’s voluntary moratorium on earmarks last year,” Link said. “Unfortunately for Montana taxpayers, it seems that Senators Baucus and Tester still don’t get it. They have thrown their saddles on a dead horse. It won’t matter how hard they dig their spurs and yell giddy-up, because the wagon train is setting off in a new direction and they’re going to get left behind.”
His seat on the Appropriations Committee allows Rehberg to direct significant amounts of federal spending, which was pointed out by Baucus in his Nov. 23 letter when he asked whether Rehberg intended to abandon four bills he introduced to fund water systems throughout Montana, since they fall under the GOP’s definition of an earmark. (Washington newspaper, Politico, reported last week some House Republicans were discussing exemptions to their earmark ban for certain water and transportation projects.)
“Denny believes that these projects – which were authorized by Congress long ago – should be funded through the normal spending process,” Link said. “Earmarks should not be needed for these projects and the fact that they are only demonstrates the extent to which the spending process in Washington is broken.”
The earmark disagreement has also sparked charges of hypocrisy against Rehberg and Tester. On Dec. 2 the state Democratic Party blasted Rehberg for ranking first among the Congressional Tea Party caucus in 2010 earmarks requested, with 88 earmarks totaling more than $100 million, either solely or co-signing with Baucus and Tester, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
Tester, meanwhile, was fending off hypocrisy charges from the state GOP following his vote against the earmark ban for a statement he made in a 2006 debate in Bozeman where he said, “I don’t support earmarks, period.”
Last week Tester said his remark was taken out of context when he was making a point about earmarks that lack transparency or accountability. Tester compared it to him saying, “I don’t like wheat that has low protein,” and being attacked for saying, “I don’t like wheat.”
“They are misrepresenting what I said,” he added. “I said earmarks that are done in the dead of night, without transparency.”
Tester will run for a second term in 2012, and while Republican challengers are beginning to throw their hats into the ring, Rehberg would undoubtedly pose the biggest threat, should he decide on a bid for the Senate. The outcome of that race will depend on many things, including the state of the economy and the health of the federal budget – which ensures the debate over earmarks is unlikely to be settled any time soon.
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