During the first '08 presidential debate, on Sept. 28, Barack Obama declared war on the special-interest legislative pet projects known as earmarks. He said that "absolutely, we need earmark reform. And when I'm on president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely."
Yet the new president soon intends to sign a massive spending package that contains (depending on who does the counting) as many as 9,286 earmarks worth as much as $12.8 billion. There is no evidence that he ever combed through the package "line by line." Quite the opposite, in fact; his own budget chief said over the weekend that "we want to just move on. Let's get this bill done, get it into law, and move forward."
So what happened? Simple: his reform mantra collided with the status quo mantra of Capitol Hill. And the status quo won.
Earmarks are a longstanding congressional tradition; lawmakers of both parties have long sought to "bring home the bacon," in the form of federal aid to their states and districts. Earmarks quadrupled during the 12 years, beginning in 1995, when the Republicans held sway on Capitol Hill, but the Democrats currently in power have no intention of abolishing the bacon temptation.
The party's bigwigs have signaled that Obama would be wise to butt out of their business. House majority leader Steny Hoyer said Monday, "I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do," and he cited the constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine as proof that Congress has the power to direct federal expenditures. Last week, meanwhile, Senate leader Harry Reid said, "I'm here to tell everyone that we have an obligation as members of Congress to help direct spending to our states." 9Indeed, there are six Obama Cabinet members who are well acquainted with Reid's argument; until recently, they too were lawmakers who brought home the bacon - reportedly loading $280 million worth of earmarks into a spending bill last autumn.)
This little dustup with congressional Democrats puts Obama in a bit of a squeeze. On the one hand, he needs to demonstrate that he is still the promised reformer; hence the statement on Monday, from the White House press secretary, that even though Obama didn't comb the current spending bill line by line, "the rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently." On the other hand, Obama dare not risk pushing too hard for new "rules of the road," because he can't afford to alienate his congressional allies. He'll need them all when it's crunch time to pass the big-ticket items such as health care reform.
No doubt the Republicans, watching from the sidelines, would love to use the earmark issue to drive a wedge between the White House and the Democratic lawmakers, but their own credibility is seriously undercut by their hypocrisy. According to the non-partisans Taxpayers for Common Sense, the GOP is responsible for 40 percent of the earmarks in the spending package, and six of the top 10 Senate earmarkers are Republicans...or, as legendary conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie earlier today called them, "the weak-kneed, spineless, earmark –loving Republicans." (And hey, isn't the GOP supposed to be the party of small government?) That top-10 list includes Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who railed yesterday about the Obama "spending binge" without once mentioning his 36-item, $50-million earmark contribution.
More generally, the GOP, after weeks of attacks on Obama, still has no credibility with the public. In the newly-released NBC-Wall Street Journal survery, jointly conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Obama's favorability rating stands at 68 percent, with the Republican party at 26 percent (an all-time low in this longstanding survey). And, by a margin of more than 2-1, Americans trust the Democratics over the Republicans to pull the nation out of the recession. McInturff, speaking for his fellow Republicans, said that "these are difficult and problematic numbers," in part because Americans are willing to give Obama "a long leash."
In the long run, Obama's success will hinge in part on how well he works with his congressional counterparts to tame the recession and move the agenda he promised. Ideally, all those congressional Democrats would be focused solely on the greater good. But it's a fact of political life that earmarks (albeit with more public disclosure, as now mandated by Congress) often grease the wheels of the legislative machinery, helping to secure the crucial votes of lawmakers who require a little self interest before they consider the national interest.
Obama may determine in the end that certain reform promises may have to be junked, that he can't afford the luxury of purity. And a broken promise on earmarks may be no big deal in the end. Here's the bottom line: If the economy recovers and Obama gets the credit, relatively few Americans will care that he caved on a vow to cull congressional earmarks "line by line." And if the economy stays in the pits, a cave on earmarks will be a minor item on the voters' list of grievances against this president in 2012.