WASHINGTON — It is Sen. Tom Coburn’s signature issue. Early in his tenure, he began his crusade to attack government waste by trying to eliminate pork barrel projects. The late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens exploded when Coburn offered an amendment to kill the so-called bridge to nowhere.
So would Oklahoma Republicans nominate a replacement for Coburn this year who didn’t share his strong opposition to earmarks?
Coburn, R-Muskogee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, are deeply divided on the matter. And the race to replace Coburn comes at a time when the debate — mostly dormant since 2010 — has been revived by comments from some Democrats expressing the need for lawmakers to once again exert their spending priorities through earmarks.
Both senators have written newspaper columns in the past few weeks, with Coburn arguing in the Wall Street Journal that “restoring earmarks in today's Congress would be like opening a bar tab for a bunch of recovering alcoholics.”
Inhofe countered in Investor’s Business Daily: “Today nameless, faceless bureaucrats behind the president control how taxpayer money is spent, and no one is able to be held accountable for whether that project is waste or not.”
Coburn, who is retiring after this session of Congress, is circulating a letter among lawmakers seeking their pledges to continue the four-year moratorium on earmarks.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, who is running for Coburn’s seat, was first elected to the House in 2010, when Republicans regained control of the House and instituted the moratorium. So he was never part of the pork barrel system that his predecessors used to get road projects, university research money and even law enforcement equipment for Oklahoma’s 5th District.
Lankford signed the letter Coburn is circulating.
State Rep. T.W. Shannon, the Lawton Republican who also is running for Coburn’s seat, made clear in a statement last week that he’s not planning to stomp on Coburn’s legacy if he wins.
“I fully support the moratorium on earmarks,” Shannon said. “The list of wasteful earmarks is long and detailed, and the process was grossly abused by career politicians in Congress.”
Shannon argued that the moratorium on earmarks hasn’t prevented wasteful spending in Congress, noting that the debt was close to $18 trillion.
“If we do not insist on leaders who will get spending under control and oppose debt, the consequences to our economy and the American way of life will be devastating,” Shannon said.
Kenneth Bricker, a spokesman for Shannon’s campaign, said Shannon had never requested earmarks or special projects for his state House district.
Former state Sen. Randy Brogdon’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the issue, but the Tulsa Republican criticizes earmarks on his campaign website.
Inhofe, who secured earmarks to get hundreds of millions of dollars for major road projects in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, is eyeing the next highway bill, which lawmakers are in the process of crafting.
The highway bill simply gives congressional authorization for projects; it takes a separate bill to provide the actual funding. Inhofe has been arguing that earmarks should be allowed — encouraged in fact — if they are in authorization bills, rather than slipped into spending bills at the last minute.
But the bridge to nowhere in Alaska was an authorized project and it became a symbol of the earmark system that Coburn took on directly.