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Senate rejects McCaskill-backed measure to ban earmarks permanently

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2012 - WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate on Thursday rejected, in a 59-40 vote, an effort by Sens. Claire McCaskill and Pat Toomey to ban permanently the practice of earmarking -- that is, channeling funds to specific favored projects.

Even though their amendment fell far short of the 60 votes that would have been needed to pass it, McCaskill, D-Mo., and Toomey, R-Pa., claimed a "small victory" because the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- in an apparent effort to head off support for the measure -- announced earlier Thursday that the current "moratorium" on earmarks, which is not written into law, would be extended through 2013.

"Earmarking is a flawed, arbitrary process that should end," McCaskill said in a statement after the vote. "Our spending decisions must be based on merit, not on who you know and who serves on what committee. I will continue to fight this bad habit and hope we will someday succeed in going beyond a temporary moratorium to a permanent ban."

The earmark measure -- which Toomey and McCaskill had first announced in November -- defined an earmark as any congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit or limited tariff benefit. It would have created a new category of "points of order" in the Senate to allow any senator to raise an objection to a bill that contains earmarks; the point of order would only apply to the specific earmark. A two-thirds vote would have been required to override such an objection.

The earmark ban was one of numerous amendments that the Senate considered to the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which would explicitly ban members of Congress, their top staffers and senior administration officials from insider trading. The bill, approved later Thursday, also would require lawmakers and others to disclose publicly their financial transactions within a month, rather than only once a year. (For more on the STOCK Act, see Politico.)

Among those opposing the Toomey-McCaskill earmark amendment were Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. -- both of whom serve on the Appropriations Committee, which in the past had been a prime source of earmarks. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is still recuperating from a stroke suffered last month, did not vote.

Blunt said he voted no because he did not think it was wise for Congress to "cede control of all federal spending to President (Barack) Obama and to the unelected bureaucrats who are unaccountable to taxpayers in Missouri or elsewhere in America." Blunt argued that "directing federal spending is a congressional responsibility that is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, and lawmakers do our constituents a disservice" if they would yield too many spending decisions to the administration.

But Toomey -- saying he was concerned that too many lawmakers wanted to get rid of the current earmark moratorium -- contended that "for years, earmarks played a role in fueling the overspending in Washington and undermining the integrity of our legislative process. We cannot afford to allow Congress to resume earmarking and playing pork-barrel politics with taxpayer dollars."

Both McCaskill and Toomey vowed to continue to try to find a way to gain congressional approval of a permanent ban on earmarks. They said the amendment had been backed by several influential groups, including Citizens Against Government Waste, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the tea-party group Freedom Works.

McCaskill, who has fought the practice of earmarking for years, said in a Senate exchange with Toomey this week: "For too long, too many senators believed that the measure of their work as a senator was how much money they were bringing home. Instead of the measure of your worth being how much you can spend, I think the measure of your work should be how much you can save."

In his statement, Blunt said that "there's no doubt that both parties have contributed to this problem, and it will take both parties to restore accountability to the way Washington spends taxpayers' dollars." Noting that he had supported other amendments Thursday that would "instill more accountability in the nation's budget," Blunt said:

"Members of Congress and the executive branch have a responsibility to spend Americans' money more wisely and with greater transparency and accountability."

Blunt, McCaskill and Durbin later voted for final passage of the STOCK Act, which the Senate approved 96 to 3. In a statement, Blunt said: "Members of Congress, their staffers, and employees in the executive branch should be held to the same rules that apply to other Americans when it comes to insider trading, and I support continued transparency and accountability across all levels of government."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.