Jacob Sullum
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In his 2007 State of the Union speech, right at the moment when the Democrats took over Congress, President Bush came out of the closet as a fiscal conservative. The laughter was still echoing on Monday night, when he ascended the podium for his last State of the Union speech.

Bush nevertheless braved ridicule by reiterating his newfound commitment to pork-free balanced budgets. Even if we take him at his word, nothing he has proposed can undo the damage he did in his first six years.

Bush's approach to earmarks, the centerpiece of his get-tough fiscal strategy, shows his lack of seriousness. He issued an executive order instructing agencies to ignore earmarks that do not appear in the legislative text, and he threatened to veto any spending bill that "does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half."

But the order does not kick in until fiscal year 2009, so it does not affect any of this year's earmarks -- 11,737 items totaling $16.9 billion, by the administration's count. More than 90 percent of those earmarks do not have the force of law because they appear in committee reports or other documents outside the spending bills to which they were attached.

Once the executive order takes effect (and assuming the next president does not rescind it), Congress can readily evade it by including language in spending bills that makes earmarks listed in committee reports mandatory. Even without such maneuvers, agencies anxious to maintain good relations with the people who provide their budgets may decide to fund legislators' pet projects.

Like his executive order, the president's veto threat does not apply, even theoretically, until after Oct. 1. Given Congress's usual tardiness in passing appropriations bills, which this year will be compounded by the presidential election, Bush may not have a chance to veto any.

The results of previous veto threats are not encouraging. The Heritage Foundation found that last year's omnibus spending bill exceeded Bush's supposedly nonnegotiable limit by $20 billion, relying on budget tricks to create the illusion of compliance.

Bush's belated, half-hearted attack on earmarks looks even more pathetic set against his fiscal performance when his party controlled the power of the purse. In the first six years of the Bush administration, during which the president did not see fit to veto a single appropriations bill, discretionary spending rose by an average of 5.3 percent a year in real terms, according to the Cato Institute's Stephen Slivinski, outpacing Lyndon Johnson's annual average of 4.6 percent. Budget surpluses turned into deficits, and federal spending as a share of gross domestic product, which fell to 18.4 percent under Bill Clinton, rose above 20 percent again.

Much of the new spending went to defense and homeland security, and anyone who considers the war in Iraq a mistake or looks at the details of how anti-terrorism money is spent would have to agree that a lot of it was wasted. Bush's "compassionate conservative" vision also featured higher outlays in other areas, including education spending, which has risen 18 percent a year since 2001.

The most conspicuous example of Bush's profligacy is the Medicare prescription drug benefit he championed and still cites with pride. Indeed, the worst thing about earmarks, which represent less than 1 percent of total federal spending, may be the way they're used in the logrolling that wins passage of budget-busting monstrosities like this one.

During its first decade, the drug benefit is expected to cost about $70 billion a year, four times all of this year's earmarks put together. Over the long term, it accounts for almost a quarter of Medicare's estimated $34 trillion shortfall.

In a statement issued before the State of the Union speech, the White House worried about "the unsustainable growth in spending for Medicare" and "Medicare's long-term unfunded liability." Given the president's record of fiscal recklessness, that's about as believable as a statement from Cookie Monster condemning gluttony.

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Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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