The tea party movement claimed its first post-election victory in Washington this week, forcing even the most reluctant GOP members of Congress to swear off the earmarks that have come to symbolize out-of-control federal spending.
Many Republicans celebrated. But not all did.
The impact of the earmark ban on Georgia is substantial. Federal funding for the state’s biggest economic development project — the $551 million dredging of the Port of Savannah, worth thousands of new jobs — just became more tenuous.
But another consequence may startle tea party enthusiasts even more. The earmark moratorium has made Democrats like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed even more valuable to Republicans in this red state — as a thin but crucial bridge into the Obama administration.
Plans to deepen the Port of Savannah by six feet, to handle cargo ships that will soon begin to pass through an enlarged Panama Canal, have been in the works for 14 years.
In public, Gov. Sonny Perdue has proclaimed the harbor deepening to be the most important infrastructure target in the state. (E-mails indicate the governor thinks this in private as well — he’s tapped state workers at the Georgia Ports Authority for their advice on business opportunities after he leaves office in January.)
Given Georgia’s current economic straits, the port dredging has been a top priority for U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. The task has fallen to them in part because House Republicans from Georgia joined the no-earmark movement months ago.
Earmarks — demands from individual members of Congress for specific federal spending in specific places, redirected from elsewhere — are more the symbol of federal overspending than the cause.
They have been much abused, of course. But they amount to about $16 billion annually — 1.1 percent of discretionary outlays in the 2010 federal budget.
The most effective argument against earmarks may be the contention that they undercut the willingness of some members of Congress to oppose overstuffed budget bills by tying excess spending to local pork.
Be that as it may, the end of earmarking shifts political clout away from individual members of Congress — into the hands of congressional committee chairmen and, for at least the next two years, President Barack Obama.
“The Republican party will be giving the Obama administration more latitude in how they spend money,” conceded U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah — who is lobbying to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Given that the dredging of the port of Savannah would return $4 for every $1 spent, Kingston is confident that the project can pass muster with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And yet.
“You’re competing with a whole nation, and there are a lot of flooding issues out there,” the congressman said.
Some members of Georgia’s congressional delegation recently sent a letter to Obama — a formal request for the president to include the dredging of the Port of Savannah into next year’s budget.
Chambliss, Isakson, Kingston and U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta were the only Republicans from the Georgia delegation who would sign it. Others feared it might be construed as breaking their anti-earmark vow.
(Rather than sign the note, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, preferred to write an opinion piece, published in the Savannah Morning News, pitching the port project to Obama as an area for compromise with Republicans.)
GOP wariness has required backers of the Savannah port project to rely more heavily on Democrats with ties to Obama. Reed, the mayor of Atlanta and a former state senator, raised eyebrows this fall when he squired Republican-leaning members of the Georgia Ports Authority around Washington, D.C.
The mayor will also be featured at a Dec. 2 event in Atlanta designed to rally the support of the metro area’s business community for the Savannah effort. No charity is involved. An estimated 60 percent of the goods from a refurbished Port of Savannah would pass through metro Atlanta.
If Obama doesn’t include the federal government’s 70 percent share for the dredging in his next budget, both Isakson and Chambliss have indicated that the needs of the Port of Savannah would trump any antipathy toward earmarks. They have a constitutional duty to maintain U.S. waterways, the two senators argue.
But even if Isakson and Chambliss were successful in the Senate, the Republican-controlled House has vowed to block any budget bill with earmarks. Even worthy Republican ones.
So a letter to Obama may not be enough. It might be time for Republicans in Georgia to send him flowers and a basket of fruit, too.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider