Republicans can demonstrate their fiscal sincerity by banning earmarks and appointing reformers to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
An editorial at The Wall Street Journal:
Republicans return to Washington this week to organize themselves for the new Congress, and voters will be looking for signs that the GOP has learned its spending lessons while in the wilderness. Two early tests will be earmarks and the big spending boiler rooms known as the Appropriations Committees.
On earmarks, the House GOP leadership has rallied behind a ban, and 11 of 13 newly elected Republicans in the Senate—including Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul—campaigned against these special- interest spending projects that are typically dropped into bills with little debate or scrutiny. A Senate earmark moratorium is sponsored by veterans Tom Coburn (Oklahoma) and Jim DeMint (South Carolina) and newly elected Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire).
They are meeting resistance from the older generation of GOP leaders who define earmarks as synonymous with the Constitutional power of the purse. The otherwise conservative Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma is a particular earmark defender, as is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently said that "this debate [on earmarks] doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating." These Republicans have allies among Senate Democrats, who we hear are likely to use the lame duck session of Congress to try to pass an omnibus spending bill of $1 trillion or more for fiscal 2011. You can bet that bill will contain hundreds, if not thousands, of earmarks.
The Senators have a point about their Constitutional role, but they're ignoring the current political context and their own recent history. Republicans helped to create the public backlash against earmarks because of their own bad behavior the last time they ran Congress.
As the nearby chart shows, the number of earmarks multiplied from nearly 1,500 in 1994 to a little under 14,000 in 2005—before voters ousted what had become the Grand Old Pork Party. It isn't easy to spend so much money so egregiously that even Nancy Pelosi could campaign as a relative fiscal conservative, but the Tom DeLay Republicans managed the feat in 2006.
Now the GOP is returning to power in the House after Democrats have taken deficits to new heights and Republicans campaigned on spending restraint. It's true that earmarks make up only 2% to 3% of all federal spending, but that spending is what greases the political skids for passing trillion-dollar-plus budget bills. Members get what they want in return for voting "aye" on what the Administration and Congressional leaders want. That 2% or so is far more than the Members spend on spending oversight, which ought to be a major undertaking by the Republican House. Voters should be told when their money is misspent.
The political symbolism is also crucial to GOP credibility as it seeks to cut spending elsewhere. Republicans can't possibly succeed in freezing pay for government workers or cutting programs, if at the same time the media are exposing new Bridges to Nowhere. After tolerating Democratic earmarks for two years, President Obama is also now pushing an earmark ban, and Republicans will give him a major talking point if they maintain earmarks as usual. If this means Senators have to give up some of their own spending priorities, then they have only themselves to blame for making earmarks so notorious.
The larger test will be how Republicans decide to address Congress's overall culture of spending, and especially the engines of that culture, the Appropriations Committees. California Republican Jerry Lewis, a former Chairman during the desiccated end of the last House GOP majority, wants a special term-limit waiver to return to that post. He's desperate enough to get the job that he's even endorsed a committee seat for Arizona's Jeff Flake, a noted and heretofore lonely scourge of earmarks.
Such a waiver would be a terrible signal to voters and Members alike, but the next Republican in line by seniority, Harold Rogers of Kentucky, was also one of those who ruined GOP credibility on spending in the Bush years. We think the leadership would be better off reaching down the ranks to elevate Georgia's Jack Kingston, who has an admirable B+ National Taxpayers Union rating and would carry a reform mandate.
Speaker-presumptive John Boehner could also strengthen Mr. Kingston's hand by adding Mr. Flake and even some freshmen fiscal hawks to the spending panel. The same goes for Messrs. Coburn and DeMint in the Senate. The Appropriations Committees have a mysterious way of converting even the staunchest tight wads into spendthrifts, so we also recommend a six-year term limit for Appropriations membership.
Republicans will face many fiscal tests as the next Congress unfolds, not least writing new budget rules that make it harder to tax and spend. But if Republicans mean it when they say they understand that their mandate from voters is to stop the Washington spending spree, they'll start by restraining themselves.