Leader Blues

Friday, February 05, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Boozman’s pork, perks

For the first time in many years — well, probably ever — the Republican Party will provide Arkansas voters and observers this spring the one illuminating and exciting primary campaign. The Republican race for the U.S. Senate nomination at least offers the prospect.

Unless something happened overnight, U.S. Rep. John Boozman will enter that race today, joining a field that already could fill out the roster of a baseball team. Boozman is a stolid campaigner who has never frenzied or even charmed a crowd, but he will give the aimless primary campaign what it was missing, a target — someone with a record. Boozman’s nine years of roll calls, travel and sponsorships will be the fulcrum of the campaign. It is going to be, we hope, a worthy dialogue.

Three of the candidates — Gilbert Baker, Kim Hendren and Jim Holt — have served a little time in the Arkansas legislature but that is not the same thing. Until now, none of the candidates had contrived to raise a single issue that separated him from the crowd except fund-raising ability and electability. Polls show that any of them would have a good shot, this month, at unseating Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

All the candidates have claimed the mantle of conservatism and sought the allegiance of this year’s passionate quotient of the movement — the teabaggers (or Tea Party sympathizers or teapartiers if you’re in the cognoscenti who have heard the pornography industry’s quaint use of the word). Those are people who are driven by horror at the taxpayer bailouts of corporations and the ballooning budget deficits.

Boozman is not one of those rare Republican moderates — not in today’s Republican Party anyway — but he will still give that debate over the soul of Republicanism some context. Boozman has hewn to Republican orthodoxy on House roll calls as closely as anybody in either house, but that is not altogether a good thing in this supercharged climate.

Take earmarks, for example. Those are the spending propositions by individual members of Congress that target federal money to projects in their districts or states. Earmarks are not a big part of the federal budget, but they resonate with many voters as the perfect symbol of what is so awry about Washington. There is some truth to the view. The prevailing attitude is:
My spending is good, the rest is bad.

You saw it the other day, when President Obama presented his fiscal 2011 budget, which sought to restrain spending in many discretionary domestic programs. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, whose biggest constituency in her 18-year career in Washington has been big farming, strongly condemned the president’s proposed reduction in farm subsidies while saying she was working hard to cut federal spending. Rep. Boozman didn’t like the president’s reduction in Army Corps of Engineers spending, of which he has gotten plenty in his district.

Unless we miss our guess, the congressman is going to have to defend his great love of earmarks (as long as they are for his district). For 2008-2009 alone, he sponsored $101 million in earmarks, often in league with (who else?) Blanche Lincoln.

Baker has taken a pledge not to engage in earmarkery at all if he is elected (although as a state senator he has been the first one at the trough for personal capital-improvement earmarks). Curtis Coleman, the other major contender in this race, may be in a better position, having no such record to defend. He blasted Sen. Lincoln last week for opposing the Democratic president’s farm-subsidy cuts. He said he thought farmers would agree with him. We’d like to see a poll of farmers on that question. But it was a gutsy stand that will set him apart.

This is going to be an interesting debate. Voters dislike the idea of pork barrel, but they seem to expect their delegate, whether in Washington or Little Rock, to bring back his share of treasure. For nearly 40 years, Sen. John L. McClellan, Rep. Jim Trimble and Rep. Wilbur D. Mills were legends because they boasted of the millions of federal dollars they brought to Arkansas by their seniority on key spending committees.

We no doubt will get to hear about other symbols of government flagrancy like congressional travel. Boozman and his staff have taken quite a few trips at the expense of taxpayers or, more often, special interests. So have nearly all members of Congress, but they’re not facing critics in their own party.

If deficit-spending is the galvanizing issue, Boozman will have some real trouble in the primary, though not so much in the general election because he and Lincoln have nearly identical records on the great issues that drove the plunge to trillion-dollar deficits. They voted for the big Medicare prescription drug bill, which has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt in only four years. You may remember that Rep. Marion Berry of Gillett warned at the time that it would drive drug prices sky high, pad the profits of insurance and pharmaceutical companies and send deficits soaring. He was proved right.

Boozman and Lincoln voted for the first George Bush tax cuts that drastically reduced government revenues without curtailing spending, and they supported the two wars that, unlike all previous wars, were financed totally by debt, mostly to foreign powers. Of the $1.3 trillion deficit in the past fiscal year, their votes accounted for fully two-thirds of it. The rest was the product of the recession: plummeting tax receipts and recessionary spending triggers.

We have an idea Boozman will comport himself successfully, but the Republican Party needs the debate anyway.