With Sunday night's vote ramming through health-care legislation opposed by most Americans, the prospect of a Republican Congress is increasingly realistic. But have Republicans on Capitol Hill spent enough time in the political wilderness to deserve a return to power? Are they ready to give up the free-spending ways that cost them control of Congress and show voters that they can be trusted with their tax dollars? A vote last week suggests that, for the Senate at least, the answer is "no."
To win control of Congress, the Republicans will need to make the backroom deals Democrats cut to buy health-care votes a centerpiece of their fall campaign. But it will be hard for the GOP to run against the "Louisiana Purchase," "Gator Aid" and "Cornhusker Kickback" if they do not pledge to forgo backroom deals of their own.
House Republican leaders understand this. That is why this month the GOP conference voted to adopt a voluntary, unilateral ban on all earmarks for the remainder of the 111th Congress. The resolution declares that "no member shall request a congressional earmark, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit." Securing such a pledge was not easy. During their time in power, Republicans became addicted to earmarks. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, in 1994, the year before the GOP took control, there were just 1,318 earmarks totaling $7.8 billion. By 2005, the last year of Republican rule, the number had grown to 13,997 earmarks totaling $27.3 billion. It was a Republican Congress that gave us the "Bridge to Nowhere" and the Duke Cunningham "bribes for earmarks" scandal -- symbols of profligacy and corruption that led taxpayers to throw Republicans out in 2006.
A grass-roots movement for fiscal discipline is driving independents to the GOP, and House Republicans needed to show that they had learned their lesson on spending -- so they went cold turkey on earmarks.
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