Earmarks have become a bad symbol of government waste and need to be banned, administration officials and Republican lawmakers agreed Sunday, appearing to coalesce on another issue that drew angry voters to the ballot box this year.
Earmarks -- cash for pet projects that don't go through the proper legislative channels -- totaled nearly $38 billion in 2010. That's down by a not-so-whopping $1.1 billion from the previous year, but represents small comfort for those counting on Congress to demonstrate budgetary discretion in a difficult economic environment.
With so little self-control, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., predicted Sunday that Congress will go cold turkey to rid itself of its reliance on the pork barrel. But any move toward austerity must be accompanied by a long-term commitment to rehabilitation, DeMint added.
"Right now we've got over 500 congressmen and senators who are in Washington who think it's their job to bring home the bacon. And that takes your eye off the ball," DeMint, who calls himself a "recovering earmarker," said on "Fox News Sunday."
"I mean, we're not working on important national issues when we're trying to pave a local parking lot," he said. "I think we'll win the vote because I think most of the Republicans in the Senate have gotten the very clear message from the American people that we need to stop wasteful spending."
"The president has been about earmark reform since he got to the United States Senate," Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday." "When the Republicans were last in charge, earmarks exploded to 16,000 in one year alone. Democrats have cut that in half. But we should go the final step here, because they've become a symbol of waste."
For all the talk of cutting earmarks, however, Republicans say they want to make sure their abstinence isn't replaced with untempered spending by the president. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he doesn't want to end earmarks because it is not a money-saver and would abdicate the Senate's role to the Executive Branch by permitting the administration to decide spending levels for the states.
DeMint called that argument indefensible.
"We can, as a Congress, restrict the president in how he spends money, make it competitive grants or block grants to states. We don't have to give the administration a blank check. And I think everyone in the Senate knows that," he said, adding that one major problem with earmarks is that it gives lawmakers a reason to vote for a bill they otherwise wouldn't support.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said if earmarks are going to be eliminated, the money should then go to deficit reduction, a position that earned support from Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who appeared with Cornyn on CNN.
"My view, I'm a new guy in the Senate, in the two years I've been here, if there's anything I've fought for, I put my name on it, full transparency. But I agree with John, if we're going to get rid of earmarks and everything is done with it, so be it," Warner said.