Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced that he now supports a ban on earmarks. As recently as last week, McConnell reportedly was quietly campaigning against such a ban. Moreover, McConnell has built his political career in part on earmarks. According to Politico, he secured $113 million from 58 earmarks last year, and during his closely contested 2008 re-election campaign McConnell touted his ability to deliver projects to Kentucky.
McConnell isn’t exactly apologizing for earmarks past. He explained his change in position this way:
What I’ve concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example. Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.
Behind this principled sounding explanation lie solid pragmatic considerations. For one thing, McConnell presumably does not wish to face, or see members of caucus face, strong Tea Party opposition in primaries over the next few cycles.
More fundamentally, McConnell presumably does not want a schism develop between the leadership and the Tea Party faction of his caucus over an issue that is mostly symbolic. Indeed, if McConnell can navigate his way through this issue, there may be no schism. In my view, the existence of major substantive or policy gaps between Tea Party views and the views of “establishment” Republicans is not apparent.
There is some question as to whether McConnell’s new position will command a majority within the Republican caucus when an earmark moratorium is voted on tomorrow. However, the smart money seems to be with McConnell. Indeed, I tend to view McConnell as nearly synonymous with the smart money.