Senate Republicans agreed to a two-year earmarks moratorium Tuesday evening.
It was their bid to show voters, especially those in the Tea Party movement, that they're serious about abstaining from a practice that has become, rightly or wrongly a symbol of needless spending and the corrupting influence of the special-interests who lobby for such spending.
As NPR's David Welna reported on Morning Edition:
DAVID: Mitch McConnell may be the leader of the Senate Republicans, but he's also a powerful appropriator who's steered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earmarks to his home state of Kentucky.
A few days after the midterm elections, McConnell made it clear that he for one was not about to give up the right to request more earmarks.
But other Senate Republicans with ties to the Tea Party were pushing for the GOP caucus to approve a two year ban on earmarks. On Monday, McConnell did an about-face. In a speech on the Senate floor, he declared he too would support a ban on earmarks:
MCCONNELL SOUNDBITE: Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I've come down to this very spot and said that Democrats were ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing.
DAVID: Ditto for the entire GOP caucus — last night, behind closed doors, its members approved by voice vote a non-binding two year moratorium on seeking earmarks.
South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint was the chief sponsor of that resolution; he says McConnell's change of heart was decisive for its adoption:
DEMINT SOUNDBITE: He saw that it was gonna be divisive, uh, and uh, this move is just good for our party.
DAVID: Still, other Senate Republicans have grave misgivings about swearing off earmarks. Having lost the GOP primary to Mike Lee, a Tea Party backed challenger, Utah's Robert Bennett is about to retire:
BENNETT SOUNDBITE: I think when people begin to recognize the impact on their individual states, they may decide the earmark ban is not a good idea. And since i'm not going to be here and don't have to worry about it, I can speak my mind. Frankly, I don't think it's a good idea.
Nor does Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. She may well keep her seat after running a write-in campaign against GOP challenger Joe Miller, who supports a ban on earmarks:
MURKOWSKI: It ties the hands of the legislative body. The Constitution says that the power of the purse is with the uh, the legislative body. We are effectively handing that over to, to the executive branch. I think that that's misplaced. I don't think that we should be doing it.
DAVID: And it's not just Republicans pushing to end earmarks:
SEN, CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO) SOUNDBITE: This power of the purse argument is, you know, horseradish.
DAVID: Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill has joined forces with Republican Jim DeMint to ban earmarks altogether in the Senate.
McCaskill: It is a process that is fundamentally flawed, and it should be easy to reform it, and how are we ever going to do the hard stuff if we're not willing to do what should be easy.
Supporters of earmarks and experts on Congress and government have repeatedly said that earmarks, specific funding for pet projects, are such a small part of the federal budget — about one percent — as to be irrelevant in discussions about federal deficits and debt.
But high-profile abuses of the practice, like the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and the significant lobbying encouraged by the earmarking have caused even some who aren't ideologically opposed to big government to call for changes to the practice.