Tag Archives: Phil Gramm

When did earmarks become fashionable?

“Earmarks” used to be a four-letter word.

Republican members of Congress rose against them. They were eliminated. Now they’re back, thanks in large part to the insistence of, um, Republican members of Congress.

Earmarks are those items that lawmakers tuck — or sneak — into budgets. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere” that the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens inserted into a budget? The “bridge” money went for a structure that, well, went nowhere in Alaska.

Stevens was scorned for that little game of fiscal chicanery.

Now it appears that earmarks are being resurrected. I don’t get it.

Republicans who now control both congressional chambers — and the White House — have forgotten how they won voters’ hearts in the first place. They are supposed to be the “party of fiscal responsibility.”

Earmarks are meant to allow lawmakers to bring “pork barrel” money to their states and congressional districts. Many House members and senators have been pretty damn good at it. The late Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd fattened the budget with money he directed to West Virginia. And get this. Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, once bragged that he brought back so much “pork” to his home state that he was afraid of “coming down with trichinosis.”

I consider myself a deficit hawk, even though I also consider myself to be a left-leaning blogger. I don’t like earmarks any more than the next guy. They constitute government waste.

They’re coming back.

What happened to “draining the swamp,” eh? Mr. President? When are you going to pull the plug?

Wishing for days of ‘pork barrel’ bickering

My late mother had a retort when I would say, “Mom, I’ve been thinking.”

“Oh, beginner’s luck?” she would ask … rhetorically.

I’ve had a rash of beginner’s luck lately. I’ve been thinking about the good ol’ days of politics in Washington, D.C., when we used to single out politicians who had this habit of being champions for “pork barrel spending projects,” or those projects that benefit a specific area.

These days, worries about pork barrel spending has given way to rank ideology, where one side calls the other side “evil.” Liberals think conservatives have evil intent; the feeling is quite mutual coming from the other side.

Frankly, I prefer the old days when politicians used to bitch at each other because of all the money they funneled to their states and/or their congressional districts.

The former Republican U.S. senator from Texas, the loquacious Phil Gramm, used to boast about all the “pork” he brought home. “I’ve carried so much pork back to Texas,” he would say, “I think I’m coming down with trichinosis.”

Gramm, though, was a piker compared to some of his Senate colleagues. The late Democrat from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, was known as the king of pork barrel spending. He would attach riders onto amendments to bills that had dough for this or that federal project. As a result, Byrd’s name is on more buildings and bridges in West Virginia than one can possibly imagine.

However, is pork barrel spending a bad thing?

Look at it this way: Politicians do what their constituents want them to do. That’s the nature of politics in a representative democracy, as near as I can tell. We elect pols to represent our interests. If it means carving out a few bucks for this project or that back home, well, then that’s what we send them off to do for us.

These days we hear from rigid ideologues in the U.S. Senate and House. Texas’ two senators — Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — offer prime examples. One won’t likely accuse Cruz especially of being loaded down with pork; he’s too busy promoting rigid conservative ideology to worry about rebuilding highways and bridges back home in Texas; Cornyn, too, has this leadership role among Republicans in which he seeks to elect more of them to the Senate.

The House features much the same sort of ideology. My congressman, Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, once criticized President Obama for considering air strikes against Syria; then he praised Donald J. Trump for doing that very thing. Thornberry isn’t the least bit interested in pork barrel spending, which seems to fit the desires of his constituents; if they insisted on him bringing home more money to the 13th Congressional District, my hunch is that he’d do their bidding.

Where am I going with this?

I guess I’m trying to suggest two things.

One, I long for a return to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local.” Why not argue the merits of this or that spending program and whether our member of Congress — in the House or Senate — is doing what we want him or her to do on our behalf?

Two, let’s quit the purely ideological battles and demonization of each other just because they happen to be of a different stripe. From where I sit, I still consider good government to be a team sport where each team respects the other side.

Schumer headed for minority leader role

Harry Reid apparently has anointed Chuck Schumer as his successor as the leader of U.S. Senate Democrats.

Oh, that’s just great!

Reid, D-Nev., announced he won’t seek re-election next year. Schumer, D-N.Y., mounted a quick campaign to succeed Reid. It worked.

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/03/chuck-schumer-minority-leader-116473.html?hp=rc1_4

It’s not that Schumer is going to be bad for Senate Democrats, or even bad for the country. It’s just that Schumer some years ago inherited a dubious distinction from another senator who decided to retire. The distinction is being identified as part of the “most dangerous place in the world.”

It used to be said of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, that the “most dangerous place in the world is between Gramm and a television camera.” Gramm left the Senate and handed that unofficial title over to Schumer.

Harry Reid has been called a lot of things; some of them are kind, others are not, depending on who’s saying them. “Camera friendly” isn’t really one of them. He speaks quietly and isn’t known to be a media hog. One cannot say that about Schumer, who’s as garrulous as they come.

Once he becomes leader of the Senate Democrats in 2017 — either as minority leader or majority leader, depending on whether Democrats retake control of the Senate in 2016 — he’s going to be everywhere. Probably at once.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough said on “Meet the Press” this morning that that he believes Schumer will be a far greater constructive force as Democratic leader than Reid. Scarborough is more of an expert on these matters than a lot of folks. I hope he’s right.

However, we’d better get ready to see a lot of Democratic leader Schumer on our TV screens in the years ahead.

 

Cotton becomes Senate's new media star

Move over, Ted Cruz. You’ve been supplanted as the U.S. Senate’s media star — by yet another new guy.

I never thought Cruz, a Texas Republican, could be pushed aside so quickly. But he has, by another Republican newcomer, Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

All Cotton has done is draft a letter that has infuriated the White House, created a stir in the international community and perhaps given a handful of fellow Republicans a case of the nervous jerks.

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/03/cotton-storms-the-senate-115960.html?ml=po

The Letter, as I like to call it, was sent to Iranian mullahs, advising them to perhaps reject a nuclear disarmament deal being hammered by their government and the United States. Some have suggested the letter violated a long-standing U.S. law, the Logan Act, that bans unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Hey, no problem, says Cotton. He’s just doing the people’s will, he said.

As Politico reported: “Though he clearly has media savvy — he runs a guerrilla-like Twitter account that constantly blasts Obama’s foreign policy — Cotton has little regard for the media relationships of his forebears. He declined — three times — to answer questions for this story when approached in the Senate hallways. Instead, Cotton chose a spate of cable TV interviews and an interview with The Wall Street Journal to push his message this week.”

There once was a time when Senate newcomers thought it was better to be seen and not heard. More senior senators used to frown on the new guys gobbling up so much media air time and print space with their rhetoric.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm, another Texas Republican, became known for his penchant for grabbing a microphone. Then came current Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, who immediately became known as a Senate loudmouth.

Cruz, I thought, set the standard for blowhards when he joined the Senate in 2013.

Now we have Sen. Cotton, elected in 2014. He’s been in office for all of three months, but look at him. He goes and writes this letter, gets 46 of his GOP colleagues to sign it, presents to the Islamic Republic of Iran and causes quite the stir.

These new guys all promised to shake things up in the formerly staid U.S. Senate.

Brother, they sure have.

Cruz becomes movement leader

It used to be said in Washington that the “most dangerous place in the world” was the space between U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and a television camera.

Gramm has left public life and the owner of that title now happens to be another fiery Texas Republican, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz.

According to the San Antonio Express-News headline atop a blog post, the young senator has a movement that carries his name. Call it “Cruz conservatives.”

http://blog.mysanantonio.com/texas-politics/2014/12/cruz-conservatives-abandon-gop-leaders-on-anti-obama-vote/

His ability to muscle his way past more senior Senate Republicans to the center of the political stage in less than two years is utterly astounding. The Cruz Missile exploded on the scene with his GOP primary upset in 2012 of Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, after which it became a foregone conclusion he’d be elected to the Senate from such a heavily Republican state.

These days, if you want some “good copy,” turn to Ted; the glib gab machine is loaded with it. If you want to know what the TEA party wing of the GOP is thinking, ask the junior senator from Texas.

Whatever became of the GOP’s senior pols, such as Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa? Sure, the party has its share of media hounds, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida (I’ll throw Rubio into that mix, even though he’s been in the Senate only two years longer than Cruz).

To be fair, the Senate Democrats have their share of TV hogs. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri come immediately to mind.

No one else — in either party — can match Ted the Canadian’s panache.

It used to be said that it took at least half of their first six-year term for senators to figure out the ropes, to earn their spurs and to find their way to the men’s room.

Not so with Ted. The young man is a force of nature — which makes me, at least, want to head to the storm shelter.

 

Oh, how I miss Molly Ivins

Watching the unfolding Texas political campaign for statewide office — and seeing how it mirrors the intense partisanship that divides the nation — I keep thinking of Molly Ivins.

I wish she were around to see and hear the things coming out of politicians’ mouths.

Ivins died in 2007. She was just 62. She could skewer a politician — usually conservative and Republican — with the kind of skill that hasn’t yet been found since her death.

She coined the term “Gov. Goodhair” when referring to our lame-duck governor, Rick Perry. She wrote with flash, panache and she packed a tremendous rhetorical wallop.

I found this link from Mother Jones looking back on Miss Molly’s career. The folks at Mother Jones were anticipating the presidential campaign of Gov. Goodhair and thought they’d share some of Ivins’s pearls with their readers.

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2011/08/rick-perry-molly-ivins

With Texas politics leaning ever more rightward, Lone Star State pols needed someone who could hold them accountable for their silliness and outright frightening policies. Ivins was the one to do it.

In all the years I worked in daily journalism in Texas I was proud to publish Ivins’s work in the two Texas papers where I worked. One was in Beaumont, the other in Amarillo.

You know what I learned about readers in both communities, even with their disparate political leanings and demographic composition? Her fans loved her and her foes loved to hate her.

It’s that latter category of readers that fascinates me.

If she didn’t appear in either paper — for whatever reason — on a given day, my phone would ring. The conversation would go something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Yeah, where’s Molly today? I missed her column in the paper. I don’t agree with her, but I sure like reading her work. She makes me laugh.

Me: She’s taking a break. She’ll be back.

Caller: Good. She’d better be or else I’m cancelling my subscription.

There aren’t many journalists who can count “fans” among those who disagree with their commentary.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm visited us in Amarillo once years ago and we asked him to comment on a biting criticism Ivins had made about him. Gramm laughed and said, “Oh, Molly probably cried when the Berlin Wall came down.”

Well, she wasn’t a godless communist. She was as patriotic as any American I’ve ever met.

Her brand of patriotism doesn’t wear well in some circles these days. Her biting humor, though, would go a long way in the midst of what passes for political discourse these days.