Three unexpected stories have appeared in the news recently concerning the earmark ban approved by Congress in 2010 following a long campaign led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. In the first, under a headline proclaiming that “pork is back on the table in Mississippi,” National Journal's Alex Roarty reported that “a pair of Republican candidates -- Sen. Thad Cochran and former Democratic congressman-turned-GOP challenger Gene Taylor -- are embracing the now-banned practice sometimes labeled pork-barrel spending, using it not only to bolster their own campaigns but to cudgel their foes.”
In the second, with a headline reporting that “Dick Durbin wants to bring back earmarks and he's pushing Obama to support him,” Huffington Post's Sam Stein attributed this observation about the good old days to the Illinois Democrat during a meeting with some of his union supporters: "It was a Tea Party reform. They came in and eliminated it and what they did is take the glue out of a federal transportation bill. That was the glue that held everybody together: Democrats and Republicans working for a common goal.”
Then there was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky who told a local TV reporter that he “liked earmarks because it allowed members of Congress, who know their districts better than anybody else, to know what they need. But we've kicked that ball down the court to where now the bureaucrats a thousand miles away have no idea what the needs are in my district and I am unable to tell them congressionally where to spend money.” It ought to be comforting to taxpayers everywhere knowing the top House appropriator would jump at the chance to bring back earmarks.
Career Washington politicians like Thad Cochran, Gene Taylor, Dick Durbin and Hal Rogers would prefer that taxpayers not remember why public outrage forced Congress to ban earmarks four years ago. Recall that Coburn called earmarks “the gateway drug to spending addiction in Congress,” due to its role in the logrolling process. Here's how that worked: You vote for my $239 million “Bridge to Nowhere” and I'll vote for your $90 million Iowa rainforest project. After a congressman or senator has been in Congress a few years, he forgets how to say no to any spending and the nation ends up with a $17 trillion national debt.
This sudden spate of renewed earmark enthusiasm has sparked Coburn to join with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to challenge their colleagues to redouble their support of the earmark ban. “We recognize there are a wide range of views on this subject in our caucuses but we believe it is important to reaffirm our support for this policy. Congress has ample flexibility to exercise its power of the purse and represent the interests of our constituents without using earmarks. For instance, the appropriations process under regular order and our oversight authority gives members ample opportunity to set priorities and vet decisions with their elected peers.” That such a challenge is necessary helps explain why Congress has a single-digit public approval rating.