When he first ran for the Senate, Lindsey Graham told our editorial board that while he wanted to tackle the big problems facing our nation and world, he understood that he wouldn’t be allowed to keep going back to Washington to do that unless he delivered the Strom-style constituent service — and bacon — to which South Carolinians had grown accustomed.
Two years later, Jim DeMint told us he wanted to use his public-relations expertise to help the Republicans repackage their message.
Both have remained true to their word: Mr. Graham has spent the past eight years taking care of South Carolina’s needs while simultaneously carving out a niche for himself as one of the most constructive members of the U.S. Senate, a man who can work with both parties to actually get important things done no matter which party is in power. And Mr. DeMint has scored symbolic victories — not actually getting laws passed, but certainly stopping them from getting passed, and giving his wing of his party the rhetoric it needed to trounce opponents.
The immigration battle highlighted the big-issues-vs.-symbolism difference, but only now has the take-care-of-South-Carolina-vs.-symbolism dichotomy has come into such sharp relief.
You see, the grand earmark “moratorium” that Mr. DeMint managed to force onto Senate Republicans was mere symbolism.
By this I don’t mean that total earmark spending amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget, though it does. I don’t mean that for an earmark ban to actually save money, rather than simply transfer decision-making authority from the Congress to the White House, you’d have to cut the budget by that amount, although you would. (Nor do I mean to suggest that earmarks are good; they’re grossly abused, and that abuse needs to be stopped.)
I mean that the anti-earmark resolution is less than toothless — it doesn’t even aspire to have teeth. It isn’t even a non-binding commitment by Senate Republicans to stand together to filibuster legislation that includes earmarks, as I had imagined it must be. It’s simply a statement by Senate Republicans (which they approved not quite unanimously in a closed-door meeting) saying they won’t use earmarks for two years.
And even at that, the Washington Web site The Daily Caller reported, Mr. DeMint “affirmed after the vote that the caucus agreed to tolerate the practice when used sparingly under dire conditions.”
Many Republicans immediately vowed to take advantage of the “dire conditions” loophole — starting with Mr. Graham, who has been fighting an uphill battle to get $400,000 put into the budget to fund a critical environmental impact study on deepening the Port of Charleston.
If you haven’t been following this issue, a brief recap: Ports are scrambling to prepare for a new generation of larger ships set to take over the seas in 2014; the Charleston port is about six feet too shallow to accommodate them. The mandatory first step in harbor-deepening projects is a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the corps can only do a study if it is mandated in the federal budget — which for all practical purposes means it has to be earmarked.
The day the GOP caucus voted for the symbolic anti-earmark statement, Mr. Graham told editorial writers that he would “reserve unto myself the right to try to convince my colleagues to put the money in” through an earmark if he had not secured the port funding through other methods by April.
Although Mr. Graham said all the right things about the public being rightly outraged over earmarks and the importance of the Congress working to restore confidence, it was clear that he wasn’t buying this gnat-killing sledgehammer. He reminded us that he and Sen. John McCain had been fighting for some time to end such abusive practices as lawmakers anonymously adding earmarks to the budget, and earmarks being added so late in the legislative process that it was impossible to find out about them until long after the votes had been cast, and said that “I’m willing to play the game in terms of the moratorium, getting the Congress in better standing with the American people, but there are limits.”
“The reality of governing may rear its head one day soon,” he warned, “and that reality is that if this moratorium results in the port failing, that’s not good government. You could not say that good government would allow the biggest economic engine in South Carolina to die. So my goal is to create good government. And if we can get this port situation fixed in a way that would make the Congress more responsible, count me in.”
If not, then earmarks it is. And Mr. Graham won’t just ask nicely. If his colleagues won’t fund the port study, “It’d be hard for anybody to get anything through the Senate without me talking about the port; it’d be hard to get any appointments through; it’d be hard to appoint a judge.”
About the same time Mr. Graham was vowing to do whatever it takes, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss issued a statement saying that “there are times when crises arise or issues come forth of such importance to Georgia, such as critical support to the port of Savannah, and the nation that I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve funding.” That’s significant because the Port of Savannah received the corps’ blessing that very day to move forward with its own deepening project. In other words, our biggest rival is a full step ahead of the Charleston port, having received a passing grade on the study that we can’t even get the corps to start.