Why the Republican Earmark Ban Matters

McConnell’s support of the earmark ban is the first major post-election victory for the tea party.

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Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's surprising declaration Monday in support of an outright ban on earmarks is the first major post-election victory for the Tea Party movement.

Many had believed that McConnell would ultimately oppose the effort. Yet, in a speech delivered on the Senate floor, the GOP Senate leader said, "I have thought about these things long and hard over the past few weeks. I've talked with my members. I've listened to them. Above all, I have listened to my constituents. And what I've concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example."

Adding that he "won't be guilty of the same thing" he has criticized the Democrats for—"ignoring the wishes of the American people"—McConnell announced he would join the Republican leadership in the House and support "a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress."

There are those who argue that earmarks are not really a problem, that they are merely a symptom of Washington's addiction to spending and that the potential savings won't really add up to very much. There are also those who think Congress has the absolute right to specify how certain spending will occur and it is a violation of their responsibilities under the Constitution to abdicate that authority to the executive branch.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

There are others, however, especially many of those who think of themselves as members or allies of the Tea Party movement, who see earmarks as an important symbol and that eschewing them is the first step on the pathway back towards fiscal responsibility.

Working together with Ohio Republican John Boehner, who is almost certainly the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, bi-cameral GOP opposition to earmarks puts the Democrats in a difficult position.

After McConnell made his statement, Boehner's office pointed out on the GOP Leader's Blog that the GOP's unified stand "means that only President Obama and Washington Democrats stand in the way of this critical effort to restore public trust."

Obama issued a statement praising McConnell's decision "to join me and members of both parties who support cracking down on wasteful earmark spending, which we can't afford during these tough economic times."

Whether this matches the facts or not is an open question.

Obama claims that, as a member of the Senate, he "helped eliminate anonymous earmarks," and that as president he has called "for new limitations on earmarks and set new, higher standards of transparency and accountability." Anyone who followed the stimulus package from its development through is implementation, however, cannot be blamed for failing to see how Obama's words match his deeds.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Even the government's own Web site which tracks stimulus spending is unclear about how much money went out, to whom, for what and to what affect. Moreover, as Boehner's office said in the same post, "White House senior advisor David Axelrod 'made it clear' yesterday that the president 'has made no commitment to vetoing spending bills that contain earmarks despite calls from fiscal hawks for the president to make that pledge.'" Nor, as several have already mentioned, has he called on Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Democrats in the House to follow the GOP's lead.

As McConnell said, "Most Americans are deeply unhappy with their government, more so than at any other time in decades. And after the way lawmakers have done business up here over the last couple of years, it's easy to see why. But it's not enough to point out the faults of the party in power. Americans want change, not mere criticism. And that means that all of us in Washington need to get serious about changing the way we do business, even on things we have defended in the past, perhaps for good reason."

[See a slide show of the GOP's 5 Rising Stars.]

"If the voters express themselves clearly and unequivocally on an issue, it's not enough to persist in doing the opposite on the grounds that 'that's the way we've always done it.' That's what elections are all about, after all. And if this election has shown us anything, it's that Americans know the difference between talking about change, and actually delivering on it."

In short, given all the political pressure that was brought to bear on McConnell to get on board with what GOP House members were committing to do—especially from South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and the Tea Party movement, it's clear that change is in the air. McConnell deserves credit for listening and for taking the right action.

We may not be able to predict the future, to know exactly how the changes McConnell and Boehner and even Obama are talking about will play out, but it is clear that the folks on Capitol Hill are, for the moment at least, listening. Which helps reinforce the idea that elections and ideas do, in fact, matter.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.
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  • See a slide show of 5 winners and losers in the 2010 election.