Every political pundit in North Dakota has spent the last couple of weeks analyzing Senator Byron Dorgan's decision to leave the U. S. Senate voluntarily and at the healthy age (by Senate standards) of 67. The only thing that hasn't been discussed is the name of Byron's dog when he was growing up in Regent. Wasn't it Mercator?
Senator Dorgan's departure, and his likely replacement by a Republican, will have no bearing on Democratic prospects in the
U. S. Senate after the 2010 elections. The Democrats were destined to lose their 60-vote firewall against filibusters anyway. That is a fact established not by current issues but by decades of electoral history. Except in rare circumstances, the party in control of the White House has always lost seats in congress. This occurs for a couple of reasons.
First, the popular presidential candidate who helped win the Congressional seats isn't on the ticket, so fewer of his enthusiastic supporters vote in the off-year. That certainly is going to happen this year because President Obama was elected by a surge of young people and African-Americans, neither of whom have electoral staying power. They will not be at the polls because their candidate will not be on the ticket.
Second, after the second year of making difficult decisions, the popular president isn't as popular anymore. Every dream of every group hasn't been fulfilled. Most of those who voted for Democrats in 2008 will continue to support them in 2010 but with less enthusiasm, less money and fewer votes.
The second facet of Dorgan's retirement has to do with earmarks, the practice of adding home state projects to appropriation bills. Though well behind Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (166 earmarks for $1.2 trillion), Senator Dorgan has been stuffing bills with millions of dollars for scores of North Dakota programs and projects. According to Legistorm, he sponsored or co-sponsored 169 earmarks totaling $570 million in fiscal 2008-09.
Dorgan earmarks fattened the budgets for the widely-touted "Centers of Excellence," saved funding for Garrison MRI and United Tribes, poured money into research and development in every institution of higher learning, as well as scores of community projects around the state. He has had his own stimulus program.
Some of these project sponsors have been banking on more earmarks down the road, many of which could vanish in a tightening federal budget. It will take years before a new senator - Republican or Democrat -will be able to build the relationships necessary to break through the fiscal barriers ahead. Senator Kent Conrad and Congressman Earl Pomeroy won't be able to salvage all of Dorgan's earmarks.
While we may rant over the evils of earmarking, our ideology just doesn't match our appetites. It's like being a Christian. We believe at one level and practice at another, usually without permitting one to acknowledge the other. So, regardless of our ideology, we will demand our share of the earmarks as long as they are around.
In any case, there is no doubt that the changing of the guard in November will be costly for North Dakota regardless of who wins.
Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota's 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.