He'll Quit Tomorrow
President Obama promises to rein in earmarks. Soon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

LIKE A DIETER who allows himself just one more slice of cake before starting to count calories, President Obama signed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill, then pledged to get tough on congressional earmark spending -- next time. "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business," Mr. Obama announced. As with the dieter, skepticism is appropriate. The old way was supposed to have ended already. After all, Mr. Obama, in his inaugural address, proclaimed that "those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits."

The political demands of the moment led Mr. Obama to sign this measure despite its imperfections. That's understandable, but the same pressures will arise next time, too, as members of Congress will be well aware as they consider whether to take the president on over earmarks. Tradeoffs come with the territory, but Mr. Obama is accepting them after holding himself out as -- indeed, while continuing to hold himself out as -- the avatar of a new way of doing business. "Barack Obama is committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress and the level of earmarks began rising dramatically," the Obama campaign proclaimed. "I've pledged to slash earmarks by more than half when I am president of the United States," Mr. Obama said in September. Somehow, that commitment was missing from Wednesday's announcement of future restraint. The dieter didn't set a weight-loss goal.

Earmarks account for only a sliver of spending, and the Constitution does give Congress the power of the purse. As Mr. Obama said Wednesday, "Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district." Moreover, some ugly excesses associated with them have already been curtailed. The amount of earmarked funds has been brought down in the past three years, and disclosure has improved. Mr. Obama's after-the-omnibus-has-left-the-barn proposals would expand on these changes by requiring lawmakers to identify not only the earmarks they receive but the ones they request. Earmarks for private, for-profit companies would be subject to competitive bidding.

But earmarks are symbols of broader indiscipline, and they also are conducive to corruption. So it was disappointing that Mr. Obama shied away from a tougher stance even as he congratulated himself for doing more. He called earmarks for private companies "the single most corrupting element of this practice." Why, then, not do away with such earmarks entirely? As a senator, Mr. Obama eventually renounced private-sector earmarks. Likewise, Mr. Obama said that he would work to strip out unjustified earmarks from future bills -- but he proposed no mechanism for giving him that authority. "He looks forward to working through a process that allows that to happen," press secretary Robert Gibbs said. So do we.

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