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House GOP Backs Away From Real Earmark Moratorium

House Republicans wrap up their three-day retreat at the Greenbrier resort today having taken only modest steps toward their biggest goal for the gathering -- a bold, consensus earmark reform plan that the party can use to invigorate its disillusioned base and paint Democrats as soft on the issue.

Coming into the retreat, many conservative lawmakers and some members of leadership were optimistic that the GOP could agree on a one-year moratorium on new spending earmarks, a ban that Republicans would heed even if Democrats wouldn't.

In the end, however, the GOP could not reach agreement on such a strict ban during their private discussion on the issue Friday night. Instead, the party settled on sending a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for Democrats to agree to a moratorium -- meaning the minority would abstain from earmarks if the majority did too. The letter to Pelosi can be read here.

On a substantive level, the GOP's call for a ban is largely meaningless, since Republicans know Democrats will never agree to one. It's easy to endorse bold action when it's only theoretical. But Republicans still hope that the letter will be at least a start in their effort to put some real distance between them and Democrats on the issue, if only on the public relations level.

Beyond the moratorium idea, the GOP also proposed "the immediate formation of a bipartisan panel for the purpose of identifying ways to end wasteful pork-barrel spending." That's not likely to happen either, especially if the Senate has to get on board.

Republicans did pledge to take a few steps immediately, regardless of whether Democrats agree. They promised to stop asking for "monuments to me," taxpayer-funded projects named after themselves. They promised not to "airdrop" earmarks into conference reports at the last minute. They pledged not to send government funds through "fronts" or "pass-through" groups, and they promised to publicly disclose more information on the purpose and justification of earmarks.

Those are real promises, and Republican leaders have taken pains since Friday night to make clear that this letter is only a start; discussions on earmark reform will continue and could eventually yield a tougher plan. But the problem for GOP lawmakers is that many of them wanted -- and expected -- more.

In his speech to lawmakers Friday morning, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said: "We're here today to ask ourselves: Are Republicans the party that can fix Washington? If so, what sacrifices are we willing to make to PROVE we are that party? We cannot do this without being bold and putting forth fresh solutions. In 1994 we made sacrifices. We gave up perks. We gave up privileges. We took risks. We thought big. We rolled dice. We need to go through this process today and tomorrow with the same mentality."

Meeting about 12 hours after making that speech, neither Boehner nor anyone else in the room could convince enough fellow lawmakers to make such sacrifices. It's still possible that conservatives within the party will agitate enough in the coming weeks that the GOP will come out with something stronger. But in the spirit of 1994 evoked by Boehner, this was their first -- and best -- chance to do something "revolutionary," and they didn't.

By Ben Pershing  |  January 26, 2008; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  GOP Leaders , Purse Strings  
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I'm somewhat to the left of Che Guevara, politically, but I sincerely hope that the Republican party does propose a serious earmark reform package to put real pressure on Democrats to live up to their chatter. It would be bold, redeeming, and disparately needed.
Do the right thing, people.

Posted by: TheFrog | January 26, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

TheFrog's right. Who cares whose idea it is? It's a good idea, long overdue. If everyone realized that very few people benefit from expensive earmarks, there would be more pressure on Congress to put a stop to them. I too hope the Dems surprise the Repubs and fully embrace the concept -- and then take off with it in a far more comprehensive way than even the Repubs could have imagined!

Posted by: barnesgene | January 26, 2008 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for reminding me why I no longer call myself a Republican. I've resorted to being a Libertarian of all things, just to not be associated with the party of out-of-control-spending. Repubs are giving lukewarm support to this earmark reform plan so that they can look kinda like the party of small-ER government compared to Dems. If we end up with a Democrat president, they deserve fully it.

Posted by: TrackHound | January 26, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Boehner says Washington needs fixing. Where was he for the last seven years?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 27, 2008 12:24 PM | Report abuse

An earmark should be granted to HELP a project, rather than GIVING it.
Suggest tha the local group, city, county, state, whatever, fund one fourth, one third of it to should the desire of the local people for this proposed project.

Posted by: Stanley | January 27, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

This should really come as no surprise. The ability to earmark funds to serve local needs is one of the most tangible things that a Member of Congress can do to show voters that he is being effective in Washington.

However, House Republicans are hoping that they'll get some public relations traction on the earmark issue - without actually having to forgo earmarks. John Boehner, the Republicans' leader in the House, has been saying for months that the party needs to rebrand itself after the 2006 election debacle. It would seem that the House Republicans recent efforts have much more do with rebranding than reform. For that reason we can expect to hear more noise from House Republicans - but don't expect much action.

Posted by: Alan Dillingham, Alchemy GS | January 27, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

The Republican party will only agree to an earmark ban if the Democrats do the same? They can't Republicans have been exposed for what they truly are- SPINELESS and WITHOUT CHARACTER!

Posted by: Spencer | January 27, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone EXPECT THE GOP to do anything about the EARMARK issue. Note that the penalized one of their own because he was not LOYAL enough.

Sound like they are on the same link as GOD BUSH.

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