By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007
The White House threatened yesterday to cancel thousands of pet projects that Congress inserted into a massive spending bill before leaving town this week, a move that could provoke a fierce battle with lawmakers in both parties who jealously guard their ability to steer money to favored purposes.
At an end-of-the-year news conference, President Bush chastised Democratic leaders for failing to live up to their campaign promise to curb so-called earmarks and said he has ordered his budget director "to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill." Aides later said those options would include simply disregarding earmarks not included in binding legislative language.
The warning came during an expansive 48-minute session that Bush used to frame the results of 2007 as a victory for his priorities, highlighting areas where he forced Democrats to retreat while brushing past defeats for his own initiatives. The session ranged across a wide array of issues, from climate change to counterterrorism to the Middle East. But Bush resisted being drawn into two of the hottest topics of the day, the campaign to succeed him and the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes.
On other subjects, Bush worried aloud that NATO allies are growing tired of the mission in Afghanistan, and he vowed to work to keep them engaged even as violence rises. He voiced concern about the future of democracy in Russia in the wake of President Vladimir Putin's decision to hold onto power by serving as prime minister after the constitution forces him to step down from the presidency in the spring. But Bush expressed confidence that Iraqi leaders are making progress toward a political reconciliation despite some contrary signs.
In making his last extensive appearance before leaving this morning for a holiday at Camp David and his Texas ranch, Bush offered a mixed assessment of his first year with the opposition in charge of both houses of Congress. He praised lawmakers for a spurt of legislation in recent days, calling this "a moment that the country can be proud of" and saying everyone deserved credit. "I'm pleased that we have been able to end this year on a high note by moving beyond our differences and achieving important results for the American people," he said.
His sharp message on earmarks, though, stirred consternation on Capitol Hill and anticipation among fiscal conservatives. Calling Congress irresponsible for lumping 11 spending bills into a single, 1,400-page measure nearly three months into the fiscal year, he added, "Another thing that's not responsible is the number of earmarks that Congress included." While Congress "made some progress" curbing pet projects, he said that "they have not made enough progress."
Bush said he asked Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to draft possible actions to take, but he would not elaborate. One option, aides said, would be to ignore the vast majority of earmarks that are included only in conference reports rather than in the appropriations bill itself. Although traditionally honored, language in such reports is not legally binding.
"There's always been an opportunity for the president to issue an executive order essentially canceling most of the earmarks," said Brian M. Riedl, a Heritage Foundation scholar who issued a memo outlining ways to do so. "Generally, it's been perceived as a declaration of nuclear war for the president not to spend congressional earmarks. But with more than 11,000 of them, it seems like the president might consider it time."
Under such a scenario, the appropriated money would still be spent on the purpose in the bill but not necessarily on the intended recipient. Critics complain that earmarks are a way to funnel money to projects or organizations without a review of the merits. Another option that Bush aides said they are reviewing is interpreting vaguely worded earmarks in a different way from what their sponsors intended.
"Certainly those are all options, and there are probably some more options," OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan said. But he cautioned that Bush will not necessarily follow through on them. Nussle, he said, will "make some recommendations and those recommendations may or may not entail taking some action."
According to a preliminary count by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that fights earmarks, the giant spending bill sent to Bush included 8,983 projects worth $7.4 billion. A separate Defense Department spending bill signed by Bush included another 2,162 earmarks worth $7.9 billion. That brings the total to 11,145 worth $15.3 billion, although the group is still counting and the number will probably rise. The White House uses higher estimates, while Congress uses lower ones.
When the counting is done, this year's earmarks will probably be about 25 percent less costly than the all-time high in 2005, according to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "From our perspective, it's a step in the right direction. Would we have liked to see a bigger step? Yes. . . . The critical question will be: Do they continue to take steps next year and the year after next?"
Bush would not be the first president to try to cancel earmarks. James C. Miller III, who was budget director under Ronald Reagan, instructed agencies in 1987 not to honor earmarks in conference reports. But as he wrote in the Washington Times last year, "all hell broke loose," and Reagan "was distracted by the Iran-contra scandal and couldn't help. I gave up."
On Russia, Bush said Putin's designation as Time magazine's man of the year signaled that the Kremlin leader is "a consequential leader. And the fundamental question is: Consequential to what end? What will the country look like 10 years from now?" He said he hopes Putin understands that Russia needs "checks and balances and free and fair elections and a vibrant press."
Bush declined to echo his administration's criticism of NATO allies for not doing more in Afghanistan, where the alliance is leading the fight against the Taliban, but he acknowledged that fatigue has set in among some nations. "My biggest concern is that people say, 'Well, we're kind of tired of Afghanistan; therefore, we think we're going to leave,' " he said. "And so our objective is to help people meet a mission that they're comfortable with achieving."