With the balance of power in both chambers of Congress set to tip Democratic next month, Republicans have one last chance to wield their majority before at least two years of impotence. But GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have forced the party to forfeit that opportunity, blocking the passage of pork-laden appropriations bills. In the name of fiscal conservatism, Coburn and DeMint would rather leave the 2007 federal budget in the hands of Democrats-a biting indictment of Republican spending habits.
"There are a lot of Democrats in the Senate and the House that ran on fiscal responsibility," DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton told WORLD. "Let's see if they're going to walk the walk they talked about on the campaign trail. If they do, that's wonderful."
Critics consider that gamble foolish, a naïve bit of misplaced bipartisanship that will hand eager Democrats the chance to begin a reign of spending one year earlier than expected. But the Republican alternative, a slate of bills overflowing with nearly 10,000 earmarks, is no better. The Coburn-DeMint plan: a stopgap "continuing resolution" that will hold funding for programs at current levels until Democrats update the budget.
GOP appropriators decry the continuing resolution as a spoiler of Republican interests and a shirking of the congressional responsibility to pass a budget each year. Coburn, DeMint, and other fiscal conservatives respond with unyielding opposition to an earmark system run amok. Projects attached to the proposed spending bills include such pork as $300,000 for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, $175,000 for the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, and millions more to fix ball fields, add traffic lights, and research the Alabama horn fly.
Eliminating such earmarks for a year would save $17 billion in federal funds, prudence Coburn believes the recent midterm elections demand. "This year, in particular, pork did not save our vulnerable incumbents but helped drag them down," he said. "The challenges facing our country are too great and complex for members of Congress and their staff to continue to be distracted by endless earmarking."
Coburn contends that the Democratic sweep on Election Day did not constitute a rejection of conservative values but just the opposite-a rejection of big-government Republicans who had abandoned the party's core principles. Strong fiscal conservatives such as Sen. John Kyl in Arizona and Sen. John Ensign in Nevada cruised to easy victories while many GOP incumbents known for earmarking and spending binges suffered defeat.
Since 1998, Republicans have overseen a seven-fold increase in pork projects. Since 2001, the supposed party of limited government has increased domestic spending by almost 50 percent. More than an indictment of the Iraq war, Coburn views the election results as a collective cry of "Enough!"
While many Republicans have affirmed the party's need to recapture its thrifty identity, the notion of passing "clean" appropriations bills without earmarks failed to garner much support. "We can't wait until January when the Democrats are in charge and say, 'Now we're going to be virtuous,'" Denton said. "If we're going to have any credibility going forward at all, it has to start now."
Waiting until January to feign a change of heart would not only lack credibility but would give Democrats a chance to take the lead on earmark reform. Prominent Democratic leaders such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have taken strong stands against the lack of accountability within the burgeoning earmark system. Obama teamed with Coburn last year in support of a measure that will soon provide full disclosure of earmark spending in an easily accessible internet database.
Such bipartisanship reflects a common aim within both parties against Capitol Hill's covert third party-appropriators. Though some left-leaning pundits have complained that the continuing resolution is merely a Republican ruse to bog down the Democratic legislature from enacting its agenda, others view it as a chance to quickly prove that Democrats will alter Washington's corrupt culture. "Democrats may in fact spend less with their first set of appropriations bills than Republicans did," Coburn spokesman John Hart told WORLD. "The appropriators are saying the Democrats will spend more, but the facts of history don't necessarily suggest that."