Pork in the belly of the beast

    How long do you think it will take for the tea-party voters to realize that the Republican talk about “small government” is just a crock? How long it will take for these voters to realize that many of the conservatives they elected to raise hell will instead be subsumed by the Washington status quo?

    To speed the voters’ enlightenment process, let’s consider the current state of play on the issue of earmarks. During the election season, much tea-party fervor was directed at this longstanding congressional tradition, whereby lawmakers “bring home the bacon” in the form of federal pork projects for their districts and states. Earmarks quadrupled during the 12 years between January 1995 and January 2007, when the Republicans held sway on Capitol Hill, thus demonstrating the fundamental hypocrisy of a party that habitually rails against “Washington spending” even as it indulges itself at the federal trough and brags about the bacon back home. Tea-party voters wanted to halt this practice, as a matter of conservative principle, and GOP candidates – insurgents and incumbents alike – lined up to second the idea.

    Well, guess what: Now that the election is over, the Republican establishment doesn’t seem so wild about the idea anymore. Why are we not surprised?

    Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell – long known as one of the chamber’s top porkers, having championed 36 earmarks worth $50 million in a March ’09 spending package – is reportedly maneuvering backstage to thwart conservative colleague Jim DeMint’s pitch for a total ban. (On this issue, and many more, the potential ’11 fratricide between flexible McConnell and purist DeMint might well prove entertaining.)

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    McConnell insisted on CBS News three days ago that banning earmarks is a waste of time because it wouldn’t “save any money,” given the fact that the current pork tally, while valued at $15 billion, comprises only one percent of the federal budget. But the real reason is that many Republicans continue to crave the bacon. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, is also said to be backing away from a ban, but at least his reason is transparent: He’s angling for pork that would deepen the port of Charleston.

    On the House side, Republicans are said to be united in favor of a ban. Not. Future House Speaker John Boehner is apparently cool to the concept, having omitted the idea from his recent Pledge to America, and having told Fox News last Thursday that “some things that people call earmarks here wouldn’t classify as an earmark to the American people.” Translation into plain English: “It’s all fine and dandy to rail against earmarks as evil Washington spending, but those on the receiving end of the money are happy to take it, and we’re happy to give it to them.”

    Even Rand Paul, the libertarian tea-party darling, wobbled a bit the other day. The new Kentucky senator told ABC News on Sunday that, of course, he supports Jim DeMint’s ban crusade (“No more earmarks”). Then, moments later, he carved himself some wiggle room: “I will argue within the committee process for things that are good for Kentucky.” And then he wiggled even further, during a weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal: “I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests.” (For a translation, see Boehner translation above.)

    Paul is already trying to straddle the line separating Republican purists and pragmatists. The latter camp, on the Senate side, is populated by veteran lawmakers who are accustomed to sending home hundreds of millions of bacon bucks on an annual basis. The last thing they want is to actually govern in accordance with their professed principles. “Small government” and “runaway spending” – that’s just pap for the campaign stump. As a Republican caucus showdown looms next week, with a vote likely on DeMint’s proposal, these senators are determined not to give up the goodies, regardless of what the grassroots conservatives might want. (The vote will be via secret ballot, which means that the tea-partiers won’t know who caved.)

    Paul has promised to “dismantle the culture of professional politicians.” In Sarah Palin’s parlance, that sounds pretty hopey-changey. Missouri senator-elect (and veteran porker) Roy Blunt provided a blunt counterpoint this weekend; referring to the tea-party frosh who are heading to Capitol Hill, he told the Wall Street Journal:

    “They can be as ideological as they want before getting to Washington, but will soon discover that things are quite different once inside the beast.”

    True that. We’ll see who changes whom.

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