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Jewish World Review
January 7, 2008
/ 29 Teves, 5768
Congress allocates money for nearly 9,000 new earmarks. But no law says Bush has to spend it
John H. Fund
This week President Bush will make one of the most important decisions of his remaining time in office. It won't get headlines or lead the news, but it could play a major role in deciding whether this country ever gets any kind of grip on the constantly growing federal budget.
Just before Christmas, Congress sent Mr. Bush a $516 billion omnibus spending bill stuffed with 8,993 special-interest earmarks. To make matters worse, most of the earmarks aren't even in the language of the law itself. They were slipped into a 900-page "committee report" that represented the wish-lists of the Senate and House appropriations committees. Almost no one got a chance to read that report before the budget was passed late at night and with barely a day for members to review it.
Mr. Bush agreed to sign the budget but said he was disappointed at Congress's failure to overcome its earmark addiction. He announced he was asking his budget director, Jim Nussle, "to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill."
What Mr. Bush knows, and Congress doesn't want the taxpayers to know, is that the vast majority of the offending earmarks--the ones that aren't part of the actual budget law and were instead "air-dropped" into the committee report--aren't legally binding. A Dec. 18 legal analysis by the Congressional Research Service found that most of the committee reports have not been formally passed by both houses and "presented" to the President for signing, and thus have not become law. "President Bush could ignore the 90% of earmarks that never make it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote," says Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has read the CRS report. "He doesn't need a line-item veto."
Federal agencies would still be obligated to spend the dollars appropriated by Congress. But they could use the money higher priorities that would benefit all taxpayers, rather than on favors for special interests or political donors. For example, the $700,000 for a bike trail in Minneapolis could be used to rebuild the collapsed bridge in that city and to strengthen others. In addition, under such an executive order, future earmarks would likely have to go through committee hearings and would receive much greater scrutiny and publicity than they do now.
This possibility led Old Bull members of Congress to call the White House, complaining that such a move would threaten its relations with the legislative branch and threatening retribution. But none of those complaints or threats were made publicly. Members know how unpopular earmarking is with voters, and they also know that Mr. Bush could easily turn the tables on them if they actually engaged in petty revenge over the loss of their budgetary toys.
Congressional appropriators pooh-pooh the importance of any earmark reform. They note that earmarks represent less than 1% of the federal budget and are often worthy projects. But earmarks have a budgetary impact far beyond their dollar cost. "They are a gateway drug on the road to spending addiction," says Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Earmarks have other damaging effects. Many members feel compelled to vote for bloated spending bills, fearing their local projects will be stripped out. They also have dramatically expanded lobbying. Lobbyists go client-hunting, telling municipal officials they can virtually guarantee an earmark. In 2006, more than 4,000 companies or local governments hired lobbyists to pursue earmarks, up from 1,865 in 2001. And as the cases of Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham demonstrated, earmarks by the thousands result in scandals by the dozens.
The White House is at a crossroads. "If Bush were to do the right thing on earmarks it would an attention-getting precedent that could make other budget reforms possible," says Alison Fraser, who heads up economic policy for the Heritage Foundation. "It's a legacy-building moment."
Her colleague at Heritage, director of congressional relations Mike Franc, pointed out in Human Events last week that Mr. Bush faces much the same kind of decision that Ronald Reagan did in 1981 when the air traffic controllers union struck the federal government. Reagan boldly fired all the controllers, "setting a standard for decisiveness and principled action that paid dividends" later on.
By taking similarly bold action now on earmarks, Mr. Bush would also be doing lawmakers a favor by forcing them to refocus their priorities. "When members of Congress invest their time in securing federal funds for sewer plants and bike paths in their districts, they are doing more than assuming a federal role for a local responsibility," says Sen. DeMint. "They are diverting our energy away it away from solving national problems and wasting it on the task of steering tax dollars back home. Earmarking results in a terrible waste of taxpayer money, but the greatest cost is the wasted opportunity to address serious national challenges."
Thomas Jefferson recognized the dangers of pork-barrel spending back in 1796, when he wrote James Madison that allowing Congress to spend federal money for local projects would set off "a scene of scramble among the members [for] who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest."
Should President Bush decide to confront Congress on the issue of their unlawful earmarks, he would force everyone in Washington to look up from their parochial concerns. But if Mr. Bush blinks and issues a "recission order" that strips only the most egregious pork-barrel projects from the budget Congress sent him, it will be more than a lost opportunity. It will show that the power of the spending lobbies in Washington has grown so great that they can blithely ignore the Constitution and common sense as they go about their self-interested business.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund