Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved Tuesday to reframe the debate around earmarks, hoping to restore some of the spending power to Congress that has flowed to the White House over the last several years.
The populist outrage at wasteful and corrupt earmarks that erupted from the Jack Abramoff scandal was a blow to congressional authority. The Constitution names the legislative branch as the arm of government responsible for directing funding. By merely sending the executive branch money and promising oversight, Congress is abdicating its Constitutional duty, Old Bull members of Congress argue.
After all, they point out, if Congress doesn't direct the money, somebody else will. At least members of Congress are elected, as opposed to federal bureaucrats who would otherwise be entrusted with such decisions, concludes the argument.
The anti-earmark crescendo led to Obama's declaration that the recent stimulus package must be earmark-free -- narrowly defined, of course. With the earmark-empty stimulus signed into law, Democrats are ready to pick up the spending flag again.
"We shouldn't depend on the bureaucrats downtown to take care of our individual states," said Reid on Tuesday when pressed on earmark spending in the omnibus budget bill.
Reid has an uphill climb if he wants to reframe the earmark debate. Take the wording of the question he was posed: "In light of the economic downturn, how do members of Congress justify having that much pork in the bill?"
Reid answered with a history lesson. "From the very beginning of this country, we've had three separate but equal branches of government," he said.
"During the Bush years, because of the scandals created by the Republicans, earmarking -- as typified by the Abramoff scandal -- we have not been able to do our appropriation process in an appropriate manner," Reid said.
Because earmarks became tainted, Reid said, this budget has fewer of them than previous ones. "We understand that it got way out of hand with the congressionally directed spending by Republicans. Therefore, we cut by 50 percent the number of earmarks and we cut back from four percent to one percent of the total package," he said.
But he drew a line. "Congressionally mandated spending is part of our job. That's what we do," he said.
After generally defending the earmark process, he specifically defended the spending in the current bill as the result of an open process that stretches back to the 110th Congress. The omnibus spending bill largely represents the work that the previous Congress didn't complete.
The bill, said Reid, has "been on the Web for some time. Everybody's been able to look at it. It is truly a bill that involved both Democrats and Republicans -- not for a day, not for a week, but for a month now. Every subcommittee chairman has worked with their counterpart in the House and the Senate. It's a good piece of legislation."
Earmarking, though hammered in the soundbite-heavy press, is not an inherently bad practice. Most opponents -- including Obama -- call for reforming the process to bring more transparency rather than for an outright ban.
Indeed, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demonstrated the complexity of the issue at a press conference just before Reid's, when he twice declined to call for a ban on earmarks in the omnibus.