Hill politicos can't cope without earmarks

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Have you noticed the desperate-looking congressmen wandering around Capitol Hill these days, their faces all contorted in pain as they endure the agony of withdrawal from Federal Spending Addiction?

These poor wretches went into tailspins a couple of years ago when public outrage over the Bridge to Nowhere forced Congress to impose a moratorium on earmarks -- those costly tax-paid favors that congressmen once bestowed upon favored campaign donors, former staff, family members and each other.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., calls earmarks the "gateway drug" to Federal Spending Addiction. Nobody who comes to Congress is immune. Even some of the tightest of tightwads, elected on promises to stop "Washington's out-of-control spending," have succumbed.

After they've been here awhile, they get some earmarks. Next thing you know, Joe Conservative thinks his most important job as a congressman is "bringing home the bacon." That's when he becomes a card-carrying member of the Washington Establishment.

It's been different this year, especially on the House side. Voters gave the Republicans a historic landslide in the 2010 election, but often during 2011 Speaker John Boehner seemed helpless in the face of opposition from the 50 or so Tea Party freshmen.

What's Boehner's problem? A wise old congressional staffer of my acquaintance says it isn't that Boehner lacks political smarts or persuasion skills. It's that he doesn't have earmarks.

"At least half of those Tea Party types could probably be bought with earmarks," my friend said. "But Boehner can't do that. He's got far less leverage over them than before the earmark moratorium. So he goes to the Democrats for votes."

Boehner still has the sticks. He can threaten the loss of a valued committee position, or to refer every bill introduced by the principled wayward to legislative purgatory. But without earmarks, he's got no carrots.

A graying friend from the other side of the Hill described something similar among Senate Republicans, split as they are between old-guard earmark lovers like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the new breed of tough conservatives such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

"They saw what happened to Bennett in Utah and Castle in Delaware in 2010, and they're scared to death that DeMint or Club for Growth will primary them," my friend said. "So they stifle their barbs about the newcomers, but they're pushing leadership harder and more openly to bring back the earmarks."

Anybody who's gone through the agony of quitting booze or smoking knows how hard it is to get through the first couple of years without the old crutch.

And for every addict who stays clean and sober past the first year or two, there is always another who doesn't make it, who "goes back out," in AA parlance.

Instead of downing a case of brewskis or a fifth of bourbon, though, Federal Spending Addiction sufferers want to announce new multimillion-dollar grants. All for the folks back home, of course.

For pols like McConnell and Boehner, who got to the top through the old system, it must be a nightmare trying to figure out what to do now with a guy like Tim Huelskamp or Rand Paul who can't be logrolled the old-fashioned way.

How long before they figure out that staying sober means no more worrying about who agreed to sponsor your earmark last week, and what you had to promise them in return? And that frees you to do what voters elected you to do in the first place.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner