Abracadabra! Senate rules reform! Poof!
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, (D-HI) today announced that the Committee will implement a moratorium on earmarks for the current session of Congress. This amounts to a 2 year moratorium, as it will apply to both the FY 2011 and FY 2012 bills.
No, it's not rules reform in the sense that the body has adopted a change in the Standing Rules of the Senate. But it's rules reform in the sense that the Senate will change the way it does business, 67 votes or no 67 votes.
As you're doubtless aware, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, announced his intention to veto any appropriations bill with earmarks in it. It was a play perhaps designed to triangulate, or partially disarm a Republican position on the matter, though it was nonetheless met with less than universal praise from the GOP:
Blunt casts Obama vow to veto earmarks as power grab
WASHINGTON -- Amid calls for bipartisanship in Congress, Sen. Roy Blunt has found something early on that he and Senate Democratic leaders can agree on: opposing the president's plan to veto earmarks.
Blunt, R-Mo., said today that he agreed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that congressional spending should be the domain of Congress and that the ban on earmarks would "give the president too much power."
Wow, whaddya know? Something President Obama wants to do that a Republican disagrees with is a "power grab." Again.
But Blunt has a real point here, and it's been echoed by Democrats including Harry Reid, who know that whether or not earmarking is unpopular, it's Congress that holds the purse strings, and may direct appropriations as it sees fit. In fact, it's easily argue -- and Reid does make this argument -- that Members of Congress know better how already allocated money is best spent in the areas they represent than do the DC-based federal agencies. Hence Reid's message to the White House -- last week, anyway -- "back off."
But the White House didn't back off. And the veto threat, for some reason, resonates this time:
However, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them. Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law.
That's 52-year veteran of the Congress and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Inouye talking. The President said he would veto. The House said it wouldn't pass such bills. So that's it. Last week it was "back off," and this week it's "OK, we give."
Would the President risk a partial or even complete government shutdown by vetoing appropriations bills with earmarks in them? Because that's what 's implicit in the threat. Of course, the threat is a lot less daring when the House says it won't pass any such bills, anyway. But of course, this threat comes in the context of a looming fight over the budget ceiling, which contains all the same risk, albeit in slightly different form. And the assumption there, apparently, is that no one would dare risk any such thing. Would the possibility of sharing the blame change things, since there are threats from both the White House and the House of Representatives? Maybe. Although a veto is a veto, and a veto can't happen unless the House agrees to give the White House the opportunity to exercise it. So maybe we'll never know. Or maybe it would all be just too delicious to resist.
Or, it could all be taken off the table by simply having that most stolid, even ossified and unchanging body, the United States Senate -- which holds all things hostage at the whim of a minority or even a single Senator, which regularly rejects the legislation handed to it by the House even with overwhelming support on the pretense that it can't get 60 votes, which cannot change itself a whit lest the Founders themselves be set spinning in their graves -- simply agree to bend.
Abracadabra! Senate rules reform!