Even though the Democratic Congress promised a return to fiscal responsibility after the 2006 elections and the President demanded that lawmakers reduce their earmarks by half, the practice of slipping pet projects into spending bills continues to thrive in a bipartisan fashion.
The question is, when those spending bills are delivered to the White House, is President Bush prepared to be tough on big-spending Republicans and Democrats alike?
Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Jim Nussle said “yes” in a meeting at the Old Executive Office Building Friday morning.
“I don’t want any filters on this,” Nussle said. “As we look at this challenge we need to look across the board. Certainly, we all know this challenge exists in a bipartisan way and that’s unfortunate.”
The President has issued veto threats on several of the 13 unfinished spending bills that fund government operations because they exceed his budget request by $23 billion.
Tucked inside those bills are thousands of “legislatively directed” spending items. Otherwise known as “earmarks,” these are budget items requested by senators and members of Congress to pay for special projects in their home states or districts.
In a January 4 Rose Garden speech, President Bush issued two dictums related to earmarks. “Congress needs to adopt real reform that requires full disclosure of the sponsors, the costs, the recipients, and the justifications for every earmark. And Congress needs to cut the number and cost of earmarks next year at least in half,” he said. These goals were reiterated in his State of the Union Address.
The Congress, however, has made little progress on either item, and the OMB is keeping watch.
OMB has tallied 11,351 earmarks contained in the House and Senate’s spending bills, slightly down from an all-time high of 13,952 total earmarks included in the fiscal year 2005 spending bills.
6,651 of the fiscal year 2008 earmarks were requested by House members, 4,700 were nabbed by senators.
To make the earmarking process more transparent, the much-touted ethics bill signed into law in September purported to require members of both the House and the Senate to make public a signed letter that included the name and address of the intended recipient or location of any requested earmark. During last minute negotiations, however, the Senate exempted themselves from the disclosure requirements.
Nussle noted that Congress is empowered to “police itself” but said “the President has taken on the challenge of [eliminating] waste, fraud and abuse and highlighting earmarks and pork-barrel projects.
“We need to highlight these abuses,” Nussle said.
The Heritage Foundation compiled a sample list of the requested earmarks here.
Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (Ala.), who came under fire for a past request of $400 million to fund a “Bridge to Nowhere,” has requested $34 million for the Alaska Native Educational Equity Assistance Program, $7 million for an Arctic Energy Office and $150,000 for rodent control on the Aleutian Islands.
Nussle acknowledged getting tough on Republicans could cause heartburn among those who face uphill battles in the coming elections.
As a former Republican member for the left-leaning 1st District in Iowa, Nussle said, “there is a popular belief if you were a vulnerable member--and I was in that category seven of my eight terms, I was always considered vulnerable--one of the things that is often offered to you were opportunities to pass bill on the floor or to have a [pet] project, and it was thought this was a way for you to get some good attention back home, to look like you were effective and to bring home the bacon, so to speak.”
“And I have to tell you that it does in some instances it does work like that,” Nussle said. “But, I would say it’s a waning strategy in terms of its effectiveness. I would say most constituents now are not as impressed by your ability to waste federal dollars then they used to be.”