Earmarks buried in a $410 billion spending bill now before Congress aren't all "pork" – spending of dubious value. And they total less than 2 percent of the bill's cost. So why would their passage be such a rite of passage for President Obama?
Many Americans seem ready for Mr. Obama to veto this bill as proof he will exercise the fiscal discipline he so often promised in his campaign and continues to advocate. They already have doubts about his $787 billion stimulus bill that received scant review in Congress before being passed and is likely laced with poorly thought-out mandates to spend.
These earmarks add insult to injury. When will the president stand up and say thus far and no farther to such dubious spending?
The White House has said the president will sign the bill along with its earmarks – more than 8,500 items worth $7.7 billion that members of Congress included to benefit specific projects in their home districts.
His officials argue that this bill, which completes funding for the previous fiscal year through September 2009, should have been completed under President Bush. "This is last year's business. We just want to move on," said his budget director, Peter Orszag.
But Republicans – and a few Democrats – are doing their best to remind the president of his promise. "We need earmark reform, and when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure we're not spending money unwisely," Obama said last October.
Yet while GOP critics of this Obama flip-flop may enjoy pounding him, they can't ignore the fact that some 40 percent of the earmarks are headed to Republican districts. And GOP senators are six of the top 10 sponsors of the largest earmarks, according to one count. There are plenty of dirty hands from both parties in this cookie jar.
Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin have proposed giving the president a line-item veto, which would allow the chief executive the ability to "clean up" legislation loaded with pork, as Senator McCain put it last week.
That's not likely to get very far. Congress won't easily cede this power of the purse to a president when earmarks are such a powerful political tool for incumbents to lure campaign contributions and to be able to crow to constituents at election time, "Look what bacon I brought home!"
Yes, earmarks aren't always boondoggles. They can address real needs – funding to clean up a local river, restore a historic building, or support police. But earmarks hidden by the thousands in giant spending bills bypass the kind of scrutiny Americans expect, such as public comment periods and cost-benefits analyses that are routine for accountable lawmaking. They encourage lobbyists to try to influence lawmakers with the bribery of campaign contributions. And they often constitute needs that should be funded with local or state money, not by Congress.
The president will soon "outline a process of dealing with this problem [of earmarks] in a different way," promised White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Will Obama disappoint many in Congress, including close allies, who have pet projects among the earmarks? Or will he risk eroding the public's trust in his ability to rein in wasteful spending – at a critical time of very big spending by government?