Senate Republicans launched a full-scale assault on deficit spending Tuesday evening, approving an earmark ban and a flurry of other belt-tightening resolutions, while challenging Democrats to do the same.
Long-time earmark foe Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina offered the moratorium, along with Sen. Tom Coburn and 12 other senators. Sources say it is identical to an earmark ban expected to be approved in the House.
Immediately after the vote, DeMint told Newsmax he never has seen a conference so united behind foundational conservative principles.
“It’s really exciting,” he marveled. “Everybody offered resolutions to cut spending, balance the budget . . . it’s really exciting. Everybody got the message from the election.”
The voice vote approving the earmarks ban was “nearly unanimous,” DeMint said.
“I think I might have heard a grumble somewhere,” DeMint said. “But I think it was just about everyone.”
Fox News reports that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the only vote in favor of continuing the controversial practice of getting money for pet projects in home districts was Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who has led the way on fighting climate change and many other issues important to conservatives.
The earmark moratorium resolution is nonbinding, meaning that technically any Republican can violate it.
But on a practical level, with the entire GOP caucus now publicly disavowing earmarks, any Republican who submits one risks being ostracized.
Democrats will still be free to offer earmarks, and some observers believe the ability to unilaterally direct pork to their districts gives them a big political advantage. Indeed, this was the point Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raised recently on “Face the Nation,” when he appeared to back away from banning earmarks.
The pressure from grass-roots conservatives and new tea-party oriented members of Congress proved too much, however, because McConnell announced on Monday he would be jumping on the earmark-ban bandwagon. On Tuesday, he voted for the ban.
In what may have been in part a face-saving gesture from McConnell, he proposed a resolution challenging Democrats to adopt an earmark moratorium as well, which Republicans also passed.
“We also passed a resolution challenging the Democrats to take the same vote as we did. The president has said that he would [support it],” DeMint said.. “That’s probably the most important resolution of the day, is we passed ours and we challenged them to do the same thing.
“The ball is in their court,” DeMint said after the vote, meaning that Democrats must decide how to counter a GOP caucus that is taking aggressive steps to restore fiscally sound governance to Washington, in order to head off what most experts agree is a looming financial crisis.
DeMint, who for years has toiled as almost a lone voice in the wilderness calling for a more responsible, constitutionally based approach to federal governance, Tuesday’s vote was a clear vindication.
“This is as unanimous as I’ve ever seen senators before,” he told reporters. “Not just on this, but on calling for the Congress to balance the budget, to cut our own budgets.”
Senate Republicans went far beyond just banning earmarks Tuesday. Their other austerity moves:
- They approved a resolution by Sen. Lamar Alexander placing a moratorium on “creating new unfunded mandates and new entitlement programs.” It opposes burdening state and local governments with new unfunded federal mandates, such as healthcare reform, which shifts huge costs to provide health insurance to the uninsured to state governments.
- Another Alexander resolution was passed opposing the creation of any new entitlement programs. Federal entitlements make up 56 percent of the total budget — a percentage expected to rise steeply if Obamacare is enacted.
- A resolution from Sen. John Cornyn supported a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would require that, before each fiscal year begins, the president must submit to Congress a proposed budget “in which total federal spending does not exceed total federal revenue.”
- Cornyn’s measure also would require a supermajority of both houses of Congress to increase any federal taxes.
- Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison offered a resolution that all unspent stimulus funds should be canceled immediately, to avoid “saddling taxpayers with more debt.”
- Sen. Jon Kyl proposed a resolution stating that there should be a federal hiring freeze on employees not associated with national security efforts. Kyl’s resolution points out that in the past two years the federal civilian workforce grew by 20 percent to 1.43 million.
- According to a GOP news release, Sen. John Thune submitted a resolution calling for all non-discretionary spending to be reduced to inflation-adjusted FY 2008 levels. Republicans estimate this move alone would save about $450 billion over the next 10 years.
The GOP caucus of the 112th Congress passed these resolutions in a whirlwind, closed-door session that lasted only about 45 minutes.
Of course, there is a slim chance that any of the GOP measures will be adopted by the entire Senate, which remains under Democratic control. Still, it puts Democrats in the awkward position of slamming the door on fiscal constraints. And if no Republicans offer earmarks, it could have a significant impact. Earmarks are estimated to consume some $16 billion annually.
Some Republicans worry, however, that the net effect of the earmark ban will simply be to shift authority for more spending to Democrats and the president. Because earmarks are used to curry political favor in home districts, the ultimate outcome may be up to the voters, who may have to choose at some point between entitlements and pork on the one hand, and fiscal solvency on the other.
Political analyst and author Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics tells Newsmax that the earmark ban “greatly enhances” the power of the president and the executive branch to spend money however they want, because Congress will be less specific about how money is to be spent.
”On the surface, the earmark ban may reduce the bad kinds of pork temporarily. Put me down as a skeptic, though,” Sabato says.
“There is more than one way to skin a pig,” he quips. “I’m betting there will be a sharp increase of letters from members of Congress to the new decision-makers in the bureaucracy, suggesting this or that project for approval. And who determines the level of funding for these decision-makers’ agencies? Well, Congress.”
As those observations suggest, the battle over how to reduce the flood of federal red ink is just beginning. But for DeMint, who knows grass-roots reinforcements are arriving in the persons of Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, among others, the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was cause for outright celebration.
Asked by Newsmax how it feels not to be the Senate’s lone ranger any more, DeMint slumped his shoulders forward in relief.
“I can’t tell you how good it feels,” he answered with a smile.
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