Thursday, January 31, 2008

12-Step Earmark Withdrawal

From The Wall Street Journal

January 28, 2008; page A-14

As every reformed addict knows, the road to recovery is long and hard. So it is for Republicans who became addicted to spending "earmarks" while running Congress, lost their majority in large part because of it, and are now struggling with mixed results to dry out.

Their latest halting effort in what appears to be at least a 12-step recovery plan will come tonight, when President Bush uses his State of the Union address to lay down his toughest anti-earmarking pledge to date. We're told he will tell Congress that he will veto any fiscal 2009 spending bill that doesn't cut earmarks in half from 2008 levels. He will also report that he is issuing a Presidential order informing executive departments that from now on they should refuse to fund earmarks that aren't explicitly mentioned in statutory language.

This is progress, though frankly less than we had hoped because Mr. Bush's executive order will not apply to the fiscal 2008 spending bills that passed late last year. Congress endorsed 11,735 special-interest earmarks worth $16.9 billion in fiscal 2008, yet thousands of these weren't even written into the actual budget bills. Instead, they were "air-dropped" at the last minute into nonbinding conference reports that serve as advice to federal departments about where to allocate funds. This ruse means that earmarks are able to avoid scrutiny from spending hawks on the House and Senate floor.

We argued in December that Mr. Bush had the legal authority to refuse to fund those this year as well. But in the end we hear he acceded to the argument from Capitol Hill that because he hadn't made a specific earmark veto pledge last year, he would be sandbagging Congress after the fact and courting its wrath.

The President had, however, said the following last year: "even worse, over 90% of earmarks never make it to the floor of the House and Senate -- they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You didn't vote them into law. I didn't sign them into law. Yet they're treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice." Members in both parties whooped and hollered in approval, even as they could barely contain their self-knowing grins.

Senate Republicans in particular lobbied hard to stop Presidential action against their 2008 earmarks, in the strange belief that they will help incumbent Members in close races this fall, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. This shows that Senate Republicans haven't even taken the first essential step of admitting their addiction.

They also don't understand that pork is overrated as incumbent protection, as ex-Congresswoman Anne Northup of Kentucky found out last year. She received five times as much pork as the average House Member, but still lost her Louisville district. Conrad Burns delivered $2 billion in earmarks for Montana -- about $5,000 for every voter -- but he lost too. Five pork-barreling Republicans on the Appropriations Committee in the House and Senate were defeated in 2006. The pork could well boomerang again this year if certain GOP incumbents under investigation for earmark favoritism for political allies are indicted before Election Day.

House Republicans at least made some progress at their annual retreat late last week, offering a one-year moratorium on earmarks if Democrats go along. That probably won't happen, however. So the GOP leadership could help itself with voters by endorsing Arizona Representative and earmark scourge Jeff Flake's request to join the Appropriations Committee, where he could serve as a taxpayer watchdog. Imagine how he could torment such all-world earmarkers as Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha?

Mr. Bush's strategy of drawing a harder line on the fiscal 2009 budget might at least force an anti-earmark showdown this autumn. And an executive order will set a precedent for the next President, who would pay a political price to repeal it. But Republicans are still missing a major opportunity this year to restore their fiscal credibility by swearing off earmarking altogether. You can't claim to have kicked the habit if you keep hitting the vodka bottle in your desk drawer.

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