Leading Conservative Senator: Congress Has a Right, and Duty, to Earmark

March 14, 2010 - 10:25 PM
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, named the most conservative senator of 2009 by the National Journal, told CNSNews.com he intends to lead a new effort to defend earmarking.

Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) addresses a Capitol Hill press conference (congressional photo).

(CNSNews.com) - Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.), named by the National Journal as the senator with the most conservative voting record in 2009 and rated by the National Taxpayers Union as having the Senate's fifth-best voting record on bills affecting taxing and spending, told CNSNews.com that he intends to lead a new effort to protect and defend the right of members of Congress to “earmark” appropriations and authorization bills.

Inhofe said it is important to preserve earmarking, not only to protect the constitutional prerogative of Congress to control where and how the federal government spends the taxpayers’ money, but also to protect congressional authority against encroachment by the Obama administration.

If Congress bans earmarks and thus restricts its own authority to direct federal programs, Inhofe said, “we would be delegating that back from Congress to President Obama to make those decisions. And I look at him, I look at his social engineering, I see the destructive forces in his administration that are tearing down every institution that has made America great, and I don’t want to put all this power in his hands.”



Last Thursday, the same day that Inhofe taped a video interview with CNSNews.com about his plan to defend earmarking, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) announced that House Republicans would impose on themselves a one-year moratorium on all earmarks. Under the moratorium, no member of the House Republican conference will request any earmarks in any fiscal 2011 appropriation bill or in any tax or authorization bill.

Boehner’s announcement came one day after House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D.-Wis.) and House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D.-Wash.) announced that their committee would enforce a narrower one-year earmarking ban by refusing to accept any earmarks that aim federal funds at for-profit entities.

Inhofe scoffed at the notion that earmark reform would have any impact on runaway federal spending. “I know that people, an awful lot of the big-spending Republicans, they beat the drum on earmark reform—‘We want to end all earmarks!’--and all of that,” he said.  “And what they don’t realize--what the people don’t realize—is if you stop an earmark you don’t save a nickel. All you do is send that to the Executive Branch.”
 
Crusading against earmarks, he said, is “abused by big-spenders to try to make themselves look like they are not big-spenders.”

Independent statistics appear to bear this out. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan organization that monitors earmarks, defines earmarks “as legislative provisions that set aside funds within an account for a specific program, project, activity, institution, or location.” They actually amount to a very small portion of the federal budget.

In fiscal 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, there were 9,499 earmarks included in congressional appropriations bills, and these accounted for only $15.93 billion—or about 0.4 percent—of the federal government’s $3.72 trillion budget.
 
In Inhofe’s view, the term “earmark” itself is misleading. What really is at issue, he believes, is whether federal spending will be directed by Congress, as the Constitution intended it to be, rather than by the president and unelected Executive Branch bureaucrats, who do not have the constitutional power of the purse granted to Congress in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, or the enumerated powers granted to Congress in Article 1, Section 8.  Inhofe said he opposes any funding included in a congressional appropriation that does not fall within a congressionally authorized federal program. "[I]f you would define an earmark as an appropriation that has not been authorized, kill them all," he said. "I am on that side."

But preserving the power to earmark authorization bills as well as funding measures carrying out those authorizations, Inhofe argues, is essential to preserving Congress’s core constitutional functions as the legislative branch of government.
 
“We have a constitutional responsibility in Congress," said Inhofe. "Article 1, Section 9 says, clearly, we are the ones who are supposed to make these spending determinations in Congress. Now, there are a lot of spending determinations that are made that I bitterly oppose. But if you say that you end all—they call them ‘earmarks’—but say all spending by Congress, then that means all that is going to be done by Barack Obama in the White House. It will go to the Executive.”  
 
“I predict that you are going to have the Democrats finally understanding this, and they are going to be against all earmarks because that way they can send it all to Obama,” said Inhofe.
 
The same day that Inhofe spoke, Congressional Quarterly reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) would have preferred to go beyond the Appropriations Committee’s moratorium on earmarks aimed at for-profit entities and banned all earmarks.
 
Inhofe told CNSNews.com that he ascribes to the view that the federal government is limited to spending money only on those things that can be justified under its enumerated powers listed in the Constitution, and that Congress is also limited to acting on these enumerated powers in a way that serves the general welfare of the country as opposed to a local or special interest.
 
As an example, Inhofe said, Congress ought to be able to override President Obama’s unilateral decision to cancel a U.S. program to deploy a missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic that could have protected the United States from an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile attack launched from Iran.
 
“Our intelligence says that Iran will have an ICBM capable of reaching from Iran to the Eastern United States by 2015. And what did this president do?” said Inhofe. “[W]e were getting ready with our site in Poland to be able to knock one down, and he terminated it, leaving us naked for a period of about five to ten years.”
 
“If you say that we cannot have any spending [directed by Congress], or we can’t have any oversight, then we are going to have Barack Obama defending America,” said Inhofe. 

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the enumerated powers to raise and  support armies, provide and maintain a navy, and to make the rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces of the United States.
 
Inhofe repeatedly cited Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution as the source of Congress’s—not the President’s—power to direct federal spending. It says: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
 
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who was appointed to the court by President James Madison (one of the principal authors of the Constitution), explained these words in Article 1, Section 9 as follows: “As all the taxes raised from the people, as well as the revenues arising from other sources, are to be applied to the discharge of the expenses, and debts, and other engagements of the government, it is highly proper, that Congress should possess the power to decide, how and when any money should be applied for these purposes. If it were otherwise, the executive would possess an unbounded power over the public purse of the nation; and might apply all its monied resources at his pleasure.”
 
Transcript of CNSNews.com’s discussion on earmarking with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.): 
 
Terry Jeffrey: Sen. Inhofe, I understand that you have a proposal, or you’re looking at something, that some people might be surprised that a conservative like you would be advancing.
 
Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.): You know, I know that’s true because people have been demagogued into believing something that isn’t true, and that is having to do with earmarks. Now, I have often said, Terry, that if you would define an earmark as an appropriation that has not been authorized, kill them all. I am on that side. That’s fine. But we have a constitutional responsibility in Congress. Article 1, Section 9 says, clearly, we are the ones who are supposed to make these spending determinations in Congress.   
 
Now, there are a lot of spending determinations that are made that I bitterly oppose. But if you say that you end all—they call them “earmarks”—but say all spending by Congress then that means all that is going to be done by Barack Obama in the White House. It will go to the Executive. So, I have been very much concerned. I know that people, an awful lot of the big-spending Republicans, they beat the drum on earmark reform—“We want to end all earmarks!”--and all of that.  And what they don’t realize--what the people don’t realize—is if you stop an earmark you don’t save a nickel. All you do is send that to the Executive Branch. It is the hardest thing in the world to get across.
 
I predict that you are going to have the Democrats finally understanding this, and they are going to be against all earmarks because that way they can send it all to Obama. This is the big problem that we have right now. And I have tried to explain that to Republicans and I have a hard time doing it.
 
Jeffrey: So, you believe that getting rid of all earmarks the way they are talking about would actually wipe out the constitutional authority of the elected representatives of the American people in the United States Congress to determine how the money is spent that they take away from us in taxes?      
 
Inhofe: And that is what we are supposed to be doing. Now, let me throw out something else, Terry.  If we were to do that, then let’s go ahead and dissolve all of our committees in terms of oversight. Why have oversight if we are not involved in the spending process? This thing is so misunderstood by people and it’s so abused by big-spenders to try to make themselves look like they are not big-spenders.
 
Jeffrey: Because they will oppose an earmark here or there. Now, senator, so Congress has the authority to appropriate the funds and authorize how they are spent. But there has been a debate renewed in Congress this year—that was very intense back in the 1930s when FDR was president and they really started to expand the federal government--which is the meaning of the “general welfare” phrase in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Let me read you what it says.   Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution says, quote: ‘The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, impost and excises to pay the debts and to provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.”
 
Now liberals have claimed you can take that phrase “general welfare” and use it to justify the federal government literally doing anything, including forcing people to buy health insurance. But conservatives for many, many, many decades have argued that what in fact the term “general welfare” says there is it’s a limit on the taxing and spending power of Congress, in addition to saying that Congress can only spend money as enumerated in the other clauses of Article 1, Section 8, that when they do that it must be something that provides for the general welfare of the whole American people as opposed to the particular interests of a locality or a special interest.
                 
Inhofe: Well, no, that’s true. But let’s look at it like the general welfare: How about defending America? That’s for the general welfare of America and my 20 kids and grandkids.
 
I am on the Armed Services Committee. If we were to stop anything coming from the Armed Services Committee and say: “All right, Barack Obama, you do everything. You know more about defending America then we do.” That is insane. We can’t do it. Now, let me just—We are staffed, Terry, with very smart people on the Armed Services Committee. If I could just pick out one thing I can use as a platform, or national defense. Or, let’s say, missile defense.  In missile defense, it is our responsibility to establish how we want to defend America and then what it takes to do it. There are three phases—there’s a boost phase, intermediate phase, and a terminal phase--of a missile defense system. We want to be able to shoot down a missile coming from, let’s say, Iran. Our—and this isn’t even classified—our intelligence says that Iran will have an ICBM capable of reaching from Iran to the Eastern United States by 2015. And what did this president do?  He did away with--
 
Jeffrey: Five years from now.
 
Inhofe:  Five years from now. And we were getting ready with our site in Poland to be able to knock one down, and he terminated it, leaving us naked for a period of about five to ten years.  And this is because we know what we are doing in the Armed Services Committee. If you say that we cannot have any spending, or we can’t have any oversight, then we are going to have Barack Obama defending America, the same guy that did away, terminated our only fifth-generation fighter, the F-22, the C-17, the future combat system. I don’t want to put the fate of our country in the hands of President Obama, or really any other president, but especially him.
 
Jeffrey: Well, then let me ask you this, senator. So, are you saying if the Senate Armed Services Committee passes out a defense authorization bill that says we are going to build a missile defense that is specifically designed and deployed in this way to protect us from Iran firing a missile that can hit cities in the United States of America, that liberals and President Obama would say that specific authorization built into a congressional authorization bill would be an earmark and illegitimate? 
 
Inhofe: That is exactly what they would say and they would disenfranchise us of the abilities given to us in the Constitution in Article 1.
 
Jeffrey: They would not allow you to specify the use of defense dollars in that--
 
Inhofe: No, no, because it has to be in the president’s budget. I have had members of this United States Senate stand on the floor of the Senate, and say: I’m opposed to this system—one of them, for example, was a new tower that was going to be in Vance Air Force Base—he said, because that’s not in the president’s budget. Well, wait a minute, what does the president know about Vance Air Force Base? He doesn’t know anything about it.
 
Jeffrey: You mean they would actually propose—there are people in the United States Congress—who would propose, if President Obama says we are going to have a defense authorization and budget that provides money to build a defense that would protect us from a missile coming from Iran, that is okay. But if he doesn’t put it in there and a senator amends that into the bill on the floor of the Senate, then that is impermissible?
 
Inhofe: That is impermissible. And those individuals who say they want to do away with all spending from members of Congress are admitting that. They are saying: No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that unless it’s in the president’s budget. Believe me, I will give you statements from the Senate floor that say: Oh no, we don’t want anything that isn’t in the president’s budget.
 
Jeffrey: So the Congress would basically be a passive rubber stamp to the spending predilections of whoever happened to be president?
 
Inhofe: Why even meet? There would be no reason for us to have a defense authorization meeting or an oversight hearing. If we want to have oversight over different spending and different government bureaucracies, we couldn’t do it.
 
Jeffrey: Okay, now I think that people could understand how building a missile defense to protect us from Iran, or North Korea, or perhaps even China, is in the general welfare as well as the common defense of the American people, but what about when you have legislation that says we are going to build this particular museum in Peoria, Ill., or this particular bridge in Tulsa, Okla.? Is that a legitimate--
 
Inhofe: Well, no, a bridge is a different thing. If you disagree with spending, you can go to the floor at appropriation times and you can fight the appropriation and you can defeat the appropriation. That’s our prerogative. We can do that. Now, when you mention bridge you have to keep in mind that we have--one of the committees that I am on is Environment and Public Works. We need to reauthorize the transportation system in America. We have a crumbling infrastructure. Just the other day, a woman, a mother of two children, died because a crumbling bridge fell, about a piece, and killed her. So, we need to put together thoughtful infrastructure for the United States of America. That’s what we are supposed to be doing. That’s the second most important function, in my opinion, of Congress.
 
Jeffrey:  So, you would argue that a national transportation system that includes roads within a state falls within something that is in the general welfare of the United States--
 
Inhofe: I would argue that, yes.
 
Jeffrey: And maybe it’s a part of interstate commerce?
 
Inhofe: Well, and besides that, if you stop and think, since 1953, since Eisenhower started the whole national highway system that has been an acceptable and something that has worked. And what it is, is having, drawing up criteria of what needs to be done, and roads-- 
 
Jeffrey: Senator, okay, let’s stipulate that a road system is in the general interest of the United States and therefore it’s legitimate for a member of Congress to earmark it. What about a city park in Tulsa, Okla.? Is it legitimate for a member of Congress to say we are going to make the taxpayers from Montana, California and New York pay for this city park?  
 
Inhofe: Oh, they can try.
 
Jeffrey: Pay for this city park?
 
Inhofe: They can try, and we can go down to defeat it on the floor.
 
Jeffrey: But is that in keeping with the spirit of what the Constitution intended Congress to do?
 
Inhofe: I think it’s hard to draw a line, but the thing is that is where judgment comes in, is when we want to say: Hey, that’s not right. We want to kill that. And go down and make our case and kill it.
 
Jeffrey: And say: I don’t think Senator Inhofe should have that park in Tulsa?
 
Inhofe: That’s fine.
 
Jeffrey: Or, I don’t believe Senator Schumer ought to have that park in New York City?
 
Inhofe: Yes, particularly true.
 
Jeffrey: They can try, and people can debate in Congress, and then someone can run for office, and say: This senator spent your tax money in New York or Oklahoma doing that.
 
Inhofe: That’s right.
 
Jeffrey: That’s a legitimate part of the debate?
 
Inhofe: But stop and think. If you want to follow that argument to its infinity, look at what the administration is doing. They’re saying we think this unelected bureaucrat who might live in Maryland or Northern Virginia knows more about our needs in Oklahoma and everyplace else than you know because you’re an elected representative. They’re the ones who would be making the decisions. And there was an article, just the other day, in Hill magazine by some big lobbyist who said we don’t lobby members anymore. We lobby the unelected bureaucrats. Because if you carry this earmark thing to where they are going with it, then we would be out of business in the United States House and Senate from making determinations as to where money should be spent, and it would be done by Obama and his bureaucracy.
 
Jeffrey: Well, there would be conservatives including myself, I think, who have argued and would argue that we have a federal system where under the 10th Amendment we make clear that powers that are not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution are left to the states and to the people, and that internal things like parks or a museum in a singular state are thing that the Constitution purposefully left out of the ambit of the United States Congress because those are things that states and local communities needed to take care of. Do you agree? 
 
Inhofe: Yeah, I agree with you. I agree. And I will go down and fight them if they come up on the floor.
 
Jeffrey: So your fear is that in a move to prohibit earmarks generally rather than just moving back from having the federal government fund local parks and museums, you will actually empower the president to control the national defense and legitimate functions of the federal government that Congress constitutionally is very much authorized to deal with.
 
Inhofe: That’s exactly right. And we would be delegating that back from Congress to President Obama to make those decisions. And I look at him, I look at his social engineering, I see the destructive forces in his administration that are tearing down every institution that has made America great, and I don’t want to put all this power in his hands. And I wish they would quit using the word “earmarks,” use them as appropriations and authorizations that go through the process in Congress consistent with Article 10 of the Constitution.
 
Jeffrey: And, of course, Article 1, Section 8—
 
Inhofe: Article 1, that’s right.
 
Jeffrey: --expressly gives Congress the power to provide for an army and a navy and regulate the army and navy--gives it to Congress, not the president of the United States.
 
Inhofe: And Article 1, Section 9, talks about spending in general.
 
Jeffrey: That it has to come from an appropriation from Congress.
 
Inhofe: That’s right.