This column frequently extols the virtues of self-control, responsibility and discipline, both individually and institutionally. Consequently, I have been critical of the fiscal irresponsibility displayed by Congress and President George W. Bush over the past several years. Neither has shown the restraint necessary to rein in the Federal Government's deficit spending and begin paying down the national debt. Instead, the focus has been on expanding social programs at taxpayers' expense and on securing enough financial goodies for the local folks in Congressional districts to guarantee their support for incumbent politicians.
So I was pleasantly surprised when President Bush brought up the subject of Congressional earmarks in his final State of the Union speech on Monday. Republicans were criticized extensively during the 2006 Congressional elections for their spending habits. The President signed an executive order on Tuesday directing Federal agencies to ignore any future earmarks included in report language, although not in the actual text of appropriations legislation, which is generally how earmarks receive their designation. The practice, which President Bush criticized for its lack of transparency, is a deceitful way for lawmakers to secure special funding without having to make it public during a vote. While signing the executive order President Bush stated, "it's very important for Congress to earn the trust of the American taxpayer, and one way [it] should do so is to end the practice of earmarks. Now, I said last year that [Congress] should voluntarily cut the number [of earmarks] in half - not only the number, but the amount of earmarks in half. They chose not to do so. So last night I told the Congress that I would veto any bill, appropriations bill, that does not cut the number and the amount of earmarks in half."
It is a welcome change for the President to acknowledge the corruption and fiscal irresponsibility of the earmark process. That said, the executive order is not enough. Just last month Bush signed into law what the WASHINGTON POST calls "a phone-book-size spending bill that funded virtually the entire federal government." It included, notes THE POST, $150,000 for a visitor's center at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, New York; $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, West Virginia into an arts and culture center. All of these projects will be allowed to keep their money. Bush's executive order will not take effect until Fiscal Year 2009, which begins October 1, 2008. According to THE POST, Democratic leaders plan to hold back spending bills this fall in the hope that a Democratic President will be in office next year and will pass all of their spending bills unaltered, thereby ignoring Bush's executive order.
A group of Republican Congressmen hopes to change the status quo in Washington by pledging to forego permanently all earmarks for their home districts, encouraging others to do so and signing a moratorium on the practice with Democratic leaders, who themselves vociferously criticized the practice early in 2007. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appointed a Fiscal Reform Working Group this week to "review the earmark process for spending and revenue and recommend additional means for the Senate to bring greater transparency and fiscal responsibility to government spending." Let's hope that the Group will succeed and a bipartisan effort in Congress permanently will end the practice.
It was important for the President to remind Americans and Congress of the troubling problem earmarks pose for fiscal responsibility (and, I would add, their potential for corruption). Unfortunately, his plan, as declared in his State of the Union, is too little, too late.