If it walks like an earmark and quacks like an earmark

Last night, Politico posted a story about a letter from freshman GOP legislators asking the GOP leadership to allow them to insert earmarks into a tariff bill. The Politico story follows a piece that ran Friday in The Hill, which reported that the debate centered around whether certain tariff breaks were included in the earmark moratorium.

From Politico:

In a letter to Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, 65 House Republican freshmen — or roughly three-quarters of the class — asked that the House consider a miscellaneous tariff bill jampacked with special provisions to suspend duties on various foreign goods, even though it runs counter to the earmark ban Republicans campaigned on in 2010 and instituted when they took power.

Among the 65 signatories to the letter are Indiana’s frehsman Republicans Todd Young (IN-9), Todd Rokita (IN-4), Larry Bucshon (IN-8), and Marlin Stutzman (IN-3).

The letter, available as a PDF from the House Ways & Means Committee, tries to explain away the sudden change of heart on earmarks:

Unlike spending earmarks, as they are sometimes erroneously
characterized, a duty suspension included in the MTB is available to any U.S. manufacturer including small businesses – importing the covered product because it is not available domestically. Downstream producers, distribution service providers, and consumers benefit as well from the tax reductions.

The GOP’s anti-earmark conference resolution, passed in March 2010, reads:

Resolved, that it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no Member shall request a congressional earmark, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit, as such terms are used in clause 9 of rule XXI of the Rules of the House for the 111th Congress.

When the resolution was first adopted, then-candidate Todd Rokita issued a press release:

Todd Rokita applauded Republicans in Congress today for their decision to adopt a moratorium on earmarks.

“Earmarks are a very real symbol of corruption and mismanagement by Congress,” Rokita said. “I am encouraged by the House Republicans call for a ban on all earmarks. Although the practice of earmarks should have stopped years ago, today’s announcement is a step in the right direction to restore fiscal discipline in Congress.”

In the 2010 GOP primary, Todd Young attacked Mike Sodrel over Sodrel’s votes for earmarks during his single term in office. In fact, Sodrel even threatened to sue Young over campaign commercials that claimed that Sodrel voted for 23,000 earmarks.

Young, Stutzman, and Bucshon were all signatories to a Tea Party publicity stunt, The Contract From America, in which they pledged to “Place a moratorium on all earmarks until the budget is balanced, and then require a 2/3 majority to pass any earmark.”

But to be fair, this isn’t an entirely new game, and it’s not limited to 65 know-nothing GOP freshmen. The Politico piece hints at this:

Boehner and Cantor face additional pressure from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and other veteran lawmakers who believe that the tariff breaks should never have been included in the earmark ban in the first place.

The Hill’s reporting says the same thing, relying on an anonymous GOP aide:

A GOP aide, however, said the letter was a classic case of senior Republican lawmakers roping in freshmen to support their old ways of doing business.

“This is what the old guard does, they bring the new guys in and say, ‘It’s a lot more complicated than you thought it was. We can’t change the status quo, we have to do it the way it’s always been done,’ ” said the aide.

Veteran GOP Representatives, including Mike Rogers of Alabama and Louis “Terror Baby” Gohmert of Texas, began pushing for an end to the earmark ban several weeks ago, when the House began taking up the Transportation Bill.

Richard Cowan, writing for Reuters, reported on Rogers’ push for earmarks in a closed-door GOP meeting.

“There was a lot of applause when I made my comments. I had a few freshmen boo me, but that’s okay. By and large it was very well embraced.”

And the tariff-earmark letter shows just how well it was embraced.

I’m not opposed to earmarks, in principle. The earmark ban was a cynical ploy by the GOP to avoid the hard work of good governance, and ignored common-sense suggestions for making the process more transparent and less prone to abuse. So if this leads to real reforms of our earmark system, I’m all for it. But that’s not going to happen if we just start inventing reasons why certain kinds of earmarks aren’t really earmarks.