Sep 19 2007
^Senator Tom Coburn spent a good part of last Wednesday trying to stop the federal government from building bike paths. He wanted to redirect the $12 million allotted for them to shoring up U.S. bridges following the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people. The amendment failed 80-18. Undeterred, Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, immediately introduced his second amendment of the day: a motion to suspend all earmarks — or pet projects often attached in secret to funding bills — until structural integrity of all U.S. bridges can be verified.^ There were $2 billion in earmarks in the bill, which, if passed, will fund the Transportation Department next year; the amendment failed 82-14.
That same day Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, added his own amendment to suspend a rule that requires the government to use unionized workers to make emergency repairs to bridges, which DeMint says raises the cost by as much as 35%. That amendment also failed, 56-37.
The fact that DeMint and Coburn's amendments were defeated is nothing new in the Senate, and it does little to temper their enthusiasm as Congress rushes to finish all of the funding bills for next year. At a time when the conservative base is lamenting its choice of presidential candidates as well as the priorities of the Oval Office's current occupant, the two are the leaders of a small group of Republican hard-liners working overtime against Democrats and Republicans alike to make a firm stand against what they view as out-of-control spending.
The Republican base is "frustrated with us for not carrying through on the spending issue and overspending. It's the reason we're not in the majority and it's going to take us a while to earn that trust back," DeMint told TIME in an interview in his offices last week. The Senator heads a group called the Senate Steering Committee — an organization founded more than three decades ago by Senator Jesse Helms that purposefully eschews the label "Republican" in order to stress its independence. Its members, though, are all Republican, and the group has grown from a few Senators in 1974 to more than half the caucus these days. It has three staffers who spend most of their time looking for fiscal dragons to slay; in this Congress they've found plenty.
Since Democrats took control of Congress, DeMint has filed 82 amendments and has seen 20 of them receive roll call votes. Coburn has had 83 amendments with 22 roll call votes. Between them they've accounted for 13% of the 336 roll call votes so far this year. Compared to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's six votes and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's two, the pair are literally driving the debate on the floor.
"We didn't come here to make friends, but what's happened in my case is, I've offended everyone, every special interest group. So I don't have anything else to lose now, everybody's mad, all they'll do is get madder," Coburn said. "The real problem is if we don't have some people thinking about the long term, at every turn."
Between them, the two bomb throwers have held up dozens of bills, most notably the energy bill and an intelligence authorization bill. They typically do it by standing in the way of "unanimous consent," the way most routine Senate business is conducted, without formal votes by each Senator. While "unanimous consent" is usually reserved for non-controversial matters like Post Office namings and symbolic resolutions, the leadership will occasionally try and sneak substantive bills through the process, and the Steering Committee scrubs the daily list of UCs for objectionable items. DeMint, for example, objected to 10 bills just before the Congressional summer break in August. The measures, which covered the Health and Human Services Administration, Justice and Transportation departments, included a total of $66 billion in discretionary spending and $281 billion in mandatory spending.
"This is stuff they want to do without debate and without a vote," DeMint said. To underline DeMint's point, Coburn pulled worn manila cards out of his breast pocket containing printed lists of bill titles and numbers. "There's 80-some that I'm holding," he said, waving them aloft.
The objections do not usually kill the bills, but they invariably launch negotiations with the bills' authors or the leadership on what can be done to appease DeMint's or Coburn's concerns; usually all they are asking for is a chance to debate and amend the bill — even if their amendments fail they still serve as a symbolic line in the sand. Increasingly, though, the group has started winning votes. Although the group's signature concern has been spending, their biggest victory was killing the immigration bill.
They also held up the lobbying reform bill until much more stringent controls on earmark spending were included. Last December, just days after he was elected head of the Steering Committee, DeMint brought down his own party's attempt to pass the remaining 2007 appropriations bills, saving the government $17 billion by forcing it to resort to 2006 levels. And in 2005, Coburn led the campaign against what he called the "Bridge to Nowhere," one of Senator Ted Stevens's earmarks that sought $200 million to build an Alaska bridge to an island with a full-time population of 50. Stevens, an Alaska Republican, was outraged that the attack came from his own party, and he is not alone.
Along the way DeMint and Coburn have angered the leadership of both parties and a lot of Senators. Senator Trent Lott, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, was so incensed at the role they played in killing the immigration bill that he revoked the $7,500 in funds they get from the leadership to help maintain their offices (the bulk of their funding, however, comes from fees that Senators pay to be members). While he recognizes what they're trying to do, Lott notes that their talents need to be "channeled in a more constructive way," in a way where their own party isn't taking embarrassing votes. "A lot of their amendments when they're offered don't make a lot of Senators happy," Lott said. "I mean Senators voting for bicycle paths instead of bridge repairs? That's not the smart vote substantively or politically." In other words: Let's address your concerns behind closed doors rather than embarrassing the Senate as a whole with these kind of votes. Traditionally Senators are leery of voting against another's earmarks, even if they are bike paths; their own might be on the chopping block next. "But I think in the future we could work with them," Lott added. "It's incumbent upon us to find a way to do that. A lot of their amendments, especially their fiscally related amendments, have a lot of attractiveness."
Ultimately, DeMint and Coburn play an essential role, said Senator John McCain, once a bomb thrower himself. "I remember bomb throwing," McCain said with a quick grin. "It's vital, vital. We are losing the enthusiasm of our base because of our out-of-control spending." Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle forum and one of the leaders of the conservative movement, agrees. "It's very important. They do a good job and we do think spending is out of control," Schlafly said. "The Republican base has not been happy with how the G.O.P. has handled control of Congress."
While Coburn and DeMint might look at Bush, who has grown the government quicker than any President since Lydon Johnson, as a Johnny Come Lately, they welcome his pledges to veto this year's spending bills if the Democrats add a penny more than what he asked for in his budget. In fact, they would like to see more of Bush on this issue.
"He should take on Congress," Coburn said. "There isn't oversight done on the vast majority of spending out there."
DeMint, a former marketing executive who was elected to the House as part of Newt Gingrich's 1994 revolution, is going to need to draw on his sales skills as a showdown over spending brews between the White House and Congress. "Whether the Republicans are in charge or the Democrats are in charge, you can always get enough votes to spend more money," DeMint said. "And we've tried to use that to draw attention to this and it has helped. The Bridge to Nowhere — it's one of the reasons that the Republicans are no longer in the majority."