Before the Republican gubernatorial primary, Gov. Rick Perry painted U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as a Washington insider, all but hanging a scarlet "W" around her neck and crowning her "Earmark Queen" for funneling federal tax dollars to Texas projects.
The upshot: Perry not only walloped Hutchison, he stepped smartly in line with an escalating Republican-led call to stop earmarks — spending items (or pork) tucked into the budget by individual lawmakers.
And lately, Hutchison has lent her support to Republicans who want to ban earmarks for two years.
Does that mean she's flip-flopped on the so-called "earmark moratorium?"
According to a February study by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government-spending watchdog, Hutchison, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ranked 19th among the 100 U.S. senators in fiscal year 2010 for steering tax dollars to specific projects in their home states. The state's junior senator, John Cornyn, ranked 54th.
Since 2008, Hutchison has secured $3.6 billion in earmarks for Texas projects, according to the Dallas Morning News, which in March 2009 quoted Hutchison saying: "I do think that earmarks are a legitimate role of Congress. I don't think that we should be earmarking things that do not have a national interest. Can it be overdone? Yes. Should it be transparent? Yes. But that is the role of Congress, to determine how we spend money."
Critics say that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good.
In March, House Republicans adopted a voluntary year-long earmark ban, which is non-binding (U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, was one of a handful GOP lawmakers to defy the House moratorium) but symbolically significant. On Nov. 18, House Republicans voted to extend the ban through the next Congress, which convenes in January.
Such a ban failed to clear the Senate in March. Then, Hutchison voted with the majority to table an amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to ban earmarks for two years, prohibiting Congress from considering any proposal including an earmark. In the 68-29 vote, 24 Republicans voted to continue consideration of the ban and 15 voted to put the idea aside. Cornyn, who was a cosponsor of the amendment, voted against tabling the measure.
Before the vote, DeMint said on the Senate floor: "The trust in our government is at an all-time low, and the earmarks that we send across the country are mostly with borrowed money. With all of our debt, the corruption, the waste, every American has a right to question what we're doing right now."
In a March 16 press release Hutchison issued about her vote to table the DeMint's amendment, she said "this legislation does not rein in the federal budget. Ironically, it would hand even more power to President Obama and his administration, while not cutting one cent of deficit spending. Texas’ elected representatives have a far greater understanding of Texas priorities than federal bureaucrats in the Obama administration. The same amount of funds would be spent; the only issue was who would make the decision – Congress or the president’s appointees."
Our finding: Not everyone agrees with the logic that the federal government would control discretionary spending in the absence of earmarks. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: "It's a convenient argument that people like to make" overlooking the reality that each president's budget can't take effect without congressional approval.
But what a difference seven months, and perhaps the midterm elections, may have made for Hutchison.
On Nov. 16, Hutchison came out in favor of another effort to ban earmarks, at least among Republicans, when GOP senators adopted a proposal by DeMint to ban earmarks for two years. Like the House GOP's action last spring, the endorsed ban isn't binding; it's a caucus agreement. But GOP senators are calling on Democrats to do the same. The Hill reported Nov. 22 that the full Senate is expected to vote soon on a proposal banning earmarks for three years, as an amendment to a food-safety bill.
After pushing back against the renewed push for a ban in the days before the GOP caucus vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also pledged his allegiance to the ban, which Cornyn again cosponsored.
McConnell and other earmark defenders have said the spending items account for a tiny slice of federal spending and are important for their districts. Earlier this month, PolitiFact National rated Mostly True Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's statement that "eliminating earmarks does not reduce spending."
In a Nov. 16 statement she issued announcing her support for the ban, Hutchison called it "a way to the start the process of reform that is essential to address the crushing debt our country has accumulated."
But she didn't abandon her position that if Congress doesn't direct some spending it yields decisions on discretionary spending to the White House: "The president will have 100 percent of the discretion in all federal programs... As we reform the budget process, our goal should be to cut overall spending levels, while preventing inappropriately targeted funding by both the administration and Congress."
We wondered if DeMint's proposal has changed since March, in a way explaining Hutchison's support this time around. Her office didn't respond to our query. Separately, we consulted Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a group that favors balanced budgets and reducing the national debt. Gordon told us DeMint's latest proposal is not substantively different from what he offered in the spring. "Seems to me the intention is exactly the same," he said. Also, Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman, told us the language of the senator's proposed moratorium has not changed.
When we asked Hutchison spokeswoman Courtney Sanders why Hutchison voted in favor of the moratorium this month after voting to table his March proposal, Sanders pointed us to the senator's Nov. 16 statement.
In an opinion article published in the Nov. 22 Austin American-Statesman, Hutchison writes: "House and Senate Republicans recently took a historic step and voted to support a moratorium on congressional earmarks. I supported that effort because it will give Congress the opportunity to make our nation's budget process more transparent and accountable and allow us to focus on cutting spending."
Hutchison also writes that she has "fought hard to bring federal resources to projects that are priorities for communities in Texas and where there is a national service," but her article concludes that "overall government spending is out of control and we must focus on cutting spending across the board."
So, to the Flip-O-Meter.
In March, Hutchison voted to table DeMint's amendment to freeze earmarks for two years. This month, she voted in favor of a DeMint-backed ban in a vote limited to GOP senators. True, Hutchison's first vote was to set aside legislation temporarily banning earmarks and the second was in favor of a voluntary earmark ban taken by Senate Republicans. But both were significant — and contradictory — stands on an earmark moratorium.
We call this a Full Flop.