By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Just last month, President Bush signed into law a phone-book-size spending bill that funded virtually the entire federal government. It included $150,000 for a visitor's center at the Louis Armstrong House museum in Corona, N.Y., $975,000 for curriculum development at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas and $100,000 to turn the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in Romney, W.Va., into an arts and culture center.
Last night, in the domestic centerpiece of his final State of the Union speech, Bush decided to let Romney keep its money but vowed never to allow it again. In the eighth year of his presidency, Bush pledged to take a stand against the explosive growth of lawmakers' pet projects, known as "earmarks," that has occurred on his watch.
An executive order will tell federal agencies to disregard pet projects that are designated in reports that accompany spending laws but lack the force of law. And Bush promised to veto spending bills that do not cut the number and cost of such earmarks in half.
But neither move would take effect until fiscal 2009, which begins in October. If as expected, Democratic leaders hold back spending bills this fall in the hope that a Democratic president will be in office next year, Bush may never get a chance to make good on his promise.
"He'd be in a much better position if he would just do it now rather than giving us a year to figure how to get around it," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading opponent of earmarks. "Unfortunately, we write the laws around here."
In Bush's first budget proposal, then-budget director Mitch Daniels promised a war on earmarks. It never came. The fiscal 2000 defense spending bill contained 997 earmarks. By 2005, that number had grown to 2,506. In 2000, the largest domestic spending bill, which funded labor, health and education programs, had just 491 pet projects. By 2005, there were 3,014.
Under then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the GOP used earmarks to help secure reelections for embattled incumbents, obtain loyalty to the leadership, win favors with lobbyists and reward progress up the Republican chain of command, lawmakers from both parties said. Those habits have been hard to shake.
"We have one playbook handed to us by DeLay, and we don't know how to get another one," Flake said.
But with the Democratic takeover of Congress, Republicans see in the earmark issue a chance to regain the mantle of fiscal rectitude. A number of House Republicans last week pledged that they would personally forgo requesting projects for their home districts, and GOP leaders are challenging Democrats to accept a moratorium.
In that light, Bush's State of the Union performance backs up the House Republican effort.
But if he was seeking to placate the fiercest foes of earmarking, he failed. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) called Bush's plan "weak." Thomas A. Schatz, president of the conservative Citizens Against Government Waste, labeled it "fiscal snake oil."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called the effort "an indictment of Congress and, in particular, his own party."
"Congress could cut earmarks in half if Republicans in Congress stopped asking for earmarks," Coburn said. "The party of limited government and personal responsibility should not have to look to the president to save it from itself."
But perhaps the most serious questions surrounded whether the effort would work -- or whether it should work -- even if Bush's successor picks up the cause. Language in an earmark created the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose influential report on war policy has become a critical part of the Iraq debate. Earmarks created international programs to eliminate child labor. They fund the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and are responsible for funding most federal breast cancer research.
"The Constitution grants to the Congress the power over the purse," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Congress, elected by the people of the individual states and congressional districts, is in a much better position to know if there are specific needs for federal assistance in their states than unelected bureaucrats in Washington."
House and Senate appropriations committee aides said avoiding Bush's executive order will be as simple as copying earmark instructions from bill reports and pasting them into the bills.
That could actually limit the discretion of federal agencies by giving earmarks the force of law. For instance, if a bill report allocates $1 million to repair a bridge in Maryland and a local government decides to demolish the bridge, the Department of Transportation can shift those funds elsewhere. But if that funding has the force of law, the local authority gets the money, bridge or no bridge.
If lawmakers intend to send money to Montgomery County and mistakenly write Monterey County, the mistake now can be remedied with a phone call. If it is law, Monterey, Calif., might be in luck.
Details in bill reports come not only from lawmakers but from the administration itself, said David Alberswerth, an Interior Department official in the Clinton administration who is now with the Wilderness Society. Without them, bureaucracies could be either adrift or dangerously at liberty.
"If Bush actually does this," he said, "the agencies that requested language either won't know what to do, or they'll have complete discretion with no guidance at all."