Sunday, December 23, 2007

WH: Congress Has Earmark 'Problem;' OMB Looking at Options

I missed this on Friday, but White House spokesman Tony Fratto addressed the glut of earmarks in the end-of-year omnibus bill. He indicated that OMB Director Jim Nussle is reviewing whether the executive branch can disregard earmarks included in report language, rather than statute. He also did a great job of laying out why earmarks re so bad:

...part of what he asked [Nussle] to do was to review all the options. We may not have tools to deal with earmarks. It may be largely an issue for, again, for Congress to deal with. We don't have a line-item veto, of course. But that's something that the OMB Director will take a look at.

Look, I mean, this is -- we talked a lot about earmarks. The Democratic Congress, when they came in, talked about earmarks and I guess -- maybe we need a 12-step group to deal with earmarks. They took the first step of admitting that they have a problem. I think one of the other steps is you have to make amends. So we'd like to see more amendment making...

Look, earmarks present a huge problem for government. Congress sets out lots of standards for programmatic funding. They appropriate the money, and then they tell agencies certain requirements. The agencies go through elaborate regulation and policy regulation processing, grant processing on how they're supposed to distribute money, how it's supposed to be merit-based, what priorities ought to be. States go through an equally rigorous effort to set priorities for funding that they get from the federal government.

And so to then have Congress come in and identify the projects that individual members think ought to be the number one priority, after agencies and state agencies go through all this time and effort and public rule-making to try to get it right, causes real problems for how you spend money. And in some cases -- I think we talked about this when we were talking about earmarks during -- when the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, that earmarks were noted as a particular problem because states go through this process -- in fact, they're required to do it, to list their top spending priorities for transportation projects. And sometimes earmarked funds don't get spent because they're not in the correct order of the list that a state puts together. So it causes lots of problems for agencies that are out there trying to spend money and really trying to do the right thing, based on merit and based on standards of regulation, that have been promulgated publicly, and commented on, and published in Federal Registers.

The White House is certainly talking right about this. It would be very disappointing if, after appropriate review, they were to conclude that they do not in fact, have the authority to disregard earmarks that are not written into the statute.

Of course, as the Heritage Foundation's Brian Riedl points out, it's not clear that the White House has the authority -- at least in this case:

The appropriations bills' texts contain several sections stating that a certain amount of a program's budget "shall be available for projects and in the amounts specified in the explanatory statement described in section...." This may effectively make many of the earmarks in the conference reports legally binding. The White House, as well as Members of Congress, should investigate whether that is the case. If they determine the conference reports' earmarks remain non-binding, then President Bush should issue an Executive Order cancelling all 11,331 earmarks and requiring thatall government grants be distributed by merit or statutory formula.

More from me on this here. And also check out Mark Tapscott, Glenn and Club for Growth.

On the other hand, Don Young and Ted Stevens defend earmarks to a local paper... Young has this to say:

“You show me a congressman who says, ‘I’m not going to have any earmarks, and I’m not going to listen, and I’m not going to provide,’ and I’ll show you a short-timer.”

Right. Just look at the failed careers of earmark opponents like John McCain, John Boehner, Tom Coburn, Jeff Flake, and others. It's also worth noting another earmarks defense offered by Young:

“People think their taxes go up and that spending gets bloated. It’s not true,” Young said. “If the money wasn’t earmarked for the state, it would be spent somewhere else.”

This is pure speculation on Young's part. Earmarking has become so central to the process that it's impossible to say whether earmarks come out of a set pot of money that Congress would spend regardless, or whether federal spending is padded to account for the waste. If earmarking were ended, it would be up to Congress -- not just Don Young -- to determine whether spending fell overall, or whether the federal government spent the same amount of money, but merely allocated it according to merit.

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