The new Congress hasn't even taken office, but seams are emerging on the strengthened Republican front. A test of wills seems imminent within the GOP senatorial caucus, for instance, over the symbolic issue of earmarks. For Tea Partiers, earmarks exemplify pork-barrel spending. They are thought to fund projects of questionable national worth and are presumed to be motivated primarily by politicians' desire for re-election, designed to be trotted out as proof that your representative brings home the bacon. Responding to this perception, several Republican senators-elect, inspired by incumbent Senator DeMint (one aspirant to leadership of the TP movement) want the GOP caucus to set a rule for itself forbidding Republican senators from including earmarks in spending bills. DeMint is opposed by Minority Leader McConnell and some other senior Republicans who dismiss the earmark issue as purely symbolic at best, and at worst a threat to the separation of powers. These so-called "old bulls" point out that earmarks add up only to a minute percentage of government spending. They warn, however, that eschewing earmarks would by default transfer discretion over the allocation of budget money from the legislative branch, where they claim it belongs, to the executive branch. If earmarks are as small a deal as they protest, however, the surrender of discretion they warn against should be of little concern. Tea Partiers might fairly ask why they should worry about the distribution of a discretionary power that they reject in general.
Democrats have no dog in this fight (except maybe for a blue one) because they're probably as conflicted over earmarks as Republicans are. Earmarks aren't a partisan or even an ideological issue, but a populist one -- an instance when common sense seems to identify an obvious abuse of power. Today's reactionary populists in the Tea Party movements have risked a bargain with the Republican party as a shortcut to getting the power to reform politics. The intraparty dispute over earmarks may be an early indicator for TPs of the extent to which the Republican establishment actually intends to accommodate their populist demands. The TPs have said that they won't take Republican fidelity for granted, so let their vigilance begin here.