Obama should fulfull his promises and threaten to veto the earmark-bloated spending...

Obama should fulfull his promises and threaten to veto the earmark-bloated spending bill




Thanks to the powerful stand taken by two Democrats, Evan Bayh, a centrist after my own heart, and Russ Feingold, a staunch, principled liberal, both of whom will vote against the $410-billion spending bill as long as it contains 9,000 earmarks, the Senate leadership came up one vote short on moving the bill forward.


Congress is now giving itself another five days to pry the needed vote, probably from the Republicans, many of whom want their own earmarks to pass although they are stalling for the moment to embarass the Democrats.  But some other Republicans, led by John McCain, are leading the charge against this unconscionable waste at a time when federal dollars are needed for more important things.


Throughout his campaign last year, President Obama promised repeatedly to change the tired ways of Washington, reform the “old politics,” and specifically go “line by line” through the federal budget to restrain wasteful spending. In his inauguration address and other speeches since January 20, he has again and again struck the same rhetorical notes of change, reform and fiscal responsibility.


Now, he has the perfect opportunity to make good on his words.  Reform-minded Democrats and Republicans have exposed this especially smelly bit of old-style Washington politics and slowed down its enactment.  By announcing that he would veto the bill unless it is stripped of earmarks, the President could guarantee that the House and Senate leadership would do just that and present him with a clean bill.  They would have no choice, since they would not be able to muster the two thirds majorities of both Houses to override his veto.  In any case, the Democratic leadership would not have the stomach to engage in battle with their own party’s new, very popular President. 


President Obama would not only fulfill the spirit and letter of his campaign promises. He would gain enormous respect among voters and opinion makers throughout the country and across the political spectrum, opening up new opportunities for genuine post-partisan cooperation on other, pressing issues.  And not incidentally, it would also be good policy — good for the nation and good for all Americans.


So why is he calling this “old business” and doing his best to duck the issue?  Why won’t he take a stand?  Alas, the answer is that the old politics of Washington against which he campaigned to eloquently is alive and well.  Key Congressional committee chairs and ranking members, along with many of their colleagues, regard pork projects as theirs by right and will never part with them without a fight.  No doubt, Obama fears that these powerful people on Capitol Hill will retaliate against him in many less-than-public ways if he screws them out of their earmarks.


No doubt some will try to do that. But did we not expect that Obama would at least try to rise above these political considerations and show some courage in bringing “change we can believe in” to Washington?  

If he does, he will be able to count on even stronger popular support to offset any fallout among Congressional grandees.  If he doesn’t, he will fully deserve to face the consequences of further public disappointment and gathering opposition.  It’s up to him.


What are your thoughts?  Post a comment.


(Visit me at The Purple Center)

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds

    Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold. Both strong supporters of Mr. Obama. What does this tell you?

    Obama may not want to turn this into an Executive vs. Legislative pissing match. With Bayh and Feingold taking this position it becomes an in-house (or in-Senate) issue.

    I don’t know this is what’s happening. But I do know Obama plays the long game.

  • http://stubbornfacts.us Simon

    I think it’s astonishing that this late in the game, anyone is still taken in by Obama’s campaign rhetoric, John. He certainly isn’t going to veto it, he probably isn’t going to threaten to veto it, and if he does threaten, he won’t be believed.

    Buyer’s remorse is unseemly when the product is performing exactly as predicted.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds

    I love the idea of you pretending to be a prophet, Simon. To date you’ve been right about nothing. Ever.

  • Snoop-Diggity-DANG-Dawg

    Obama should fulfull his promises and threaten to veto the earmark-bloated spending bill

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Sweet Jesus, don’t DO that to me ona Friday night!

    Thank God you’re all such independent, centrist thinkers; you know, half-donkey, half-elephant…Whew!

  • http://thepurplecenter.blogspot.com/ John Burke

    I have to say that the idea that Bayh or Feingold were somehow put up to this by Obama is ludicrous. Feingold marches to his own drummers; always has. Bayh is one of the more fiscally conservative Democrats around. Neither guy will fail to give the Administration strong support on most issues but neither is some sort of Obama ditto head.

  • http://thepurplecenter.blogspot.com/ John Burke

    Ans as to Simon’s point, Obama will do nothing in the way of course corrections about anything unless he gets flak from people who supported him.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    There’s a lot of gray area around being “put up to it.”

    There’s, for example, Bayh running the idea of his op-ed past WH staff and perhaps getting no push back. I think it would have been pretty easy for the WH to get Bayh to pull the op-ed and yes, I think Bayh would have given them a heads-up at the very least.

    So, why the marked lack of WH irritation at Bayh and Feingold? They must know it gives cover to people like Tester and Nelson and Webb, not to mention the entire GOP.

  • Chris

    I think it was well known that russ wouldn’t vote for it, he didn’t vote for the last stimulus bill either.

  • mike mcEachran

    What exactly is the difference between stimulative spending and earmark spending…? Earmark – baaad. Stimulative spending – goooood. We just gotta have something to argue about, even if an earmark is a fraction of the overall bill, and the the difference in the stimulative effect of an earmark over something else is a fraction of one percent. Please. The other thing is that ya’ll act like eliminating earmarks will reduce spending. It won’t. An earmark just tells the money which exit to take, it doesn’t stop it from taking the trip.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    You realize of course that 90% of the people who froth at the mouth over earmarks don’t actually realize they have no affect on total spending? It amounts, basically, to an argument over whether we’re having Chinese or Italian. Either way we’re going to eat out.

  • http://www.donklephant.com Justin Gardner

    Haha, but Mike…that would mean that people would actually have to argue the merits of the other spending. Better to focus on bear research, etc. Because that’s the real problem.

  • PAGO

    I believe Mike and Michael are spot on with their stimulus versus earmark analogies. That being said, earmarks are not something to just be laughed off as inconsequential. Just to speak from my field of transportation, projects that get forwarded for inclusion in a state’s transportation improvement plan (from local jurisdictions or from the state DOT) for federal funding have been put through an evaluation process that ranks them against each other for how well they meet defined transportation needs. Earmark projects have received only a paltry amount of vetting in comparison when they show up as a proposed line item on a federal budget bill.

    Unlike the stimulus bill, earmarks have been, and will continue to be, a pork dinner that the taxpayers foot the bill for, and as such should be done away with. I voted for Obama, but will be pissed if he passes another federal budget containing earmark projects. There are a ton of worthy projects going through the proper channels that will not get funded, so why should pet projects get put at the front of the soup line and not have to play by the same rules?

    And hey, I know that, collectively, earmarks are only a small part of the federal budget, but consider that for every earmark project there are dozens of communities looking for a little funding for projects that will really help them that will not get funded — because they played by the rules and were told “you didn’t make the budget cut, better luck next year”.

  • http://thepurplecenter.blogspot.com/ John Burke

    Earmarks and spending for the purpose of generating fiscal stimulus are indeed separate matters. Some earmarks might well be “stimulative” and others not. Moreover, some might be expenditures for projects that are universally praised as meritorious, while others are barely better than corruption. (Mostly, though, they are pretty much wasteful junk.)

    They are an issue because they are in effect the private property of individual members of Congress, not meant to be subject to debate, much less a vote up or down on their merits. It is exactly as if the House or Senate gave each of its members a few million in cash each year to spread around their districts as they see fit.

    Some of us — probably most Americans if they knew what was involved — do not believe that public tax revenues should be thrown about in this fashion to suit the narrowest political needs of members vis a vis their constituents. To be sure, every nickel Congress spends potentially helps one or another set of members of Congress, but then, they are obliged to debate those expenditures, allow the public to scrutinize them and be heard pro or con, and to win or lose them in votes of both Houses. In sharp contrast, earmarks are designed to be put in as a member wishes and glied through without objection from anyone.

    That’s wrong. It’s not good government. It’s not sound policy. It’s akin to petty — and not so petty — graft.

    In any case, the immediate issue is that Obama promised to oppose — inded, to root out — this shabby business. Whether he fulflills that promise is a test of his leadership.

  • kranky kritter

    Folks, the objections about earmarks go directly to process.

    I think it’s a very strong argument to suggest that bills ought to be constrained by purpose, both so people can understand their government’s actions, and so that the merits of any given spending can be debated in a proper context.

    This current bill is supposed to provide for funding to operate the government. So any spending in the bill that goes to other stuff ought not to belong. If the spending in this bill which is earmarks had been in the stimulus bill, then a different standard could have been applied.

    I agree that the amount on spending on earmarks in this bill is inconsequential speaking comparatively. But if its about 1% of 410 billion then it’s another 4 billion down the drain, and it’s in the wrong place.

    Lots of folks have said that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with earmarks, becuase congressmen know what their districts need and are in a position to prioritize. And there is certainly SOMETHING to that. But to the extent that earmarks can be crammed into any bill at any time by anyone powerful enough, they’re a very troubling abuse of the system.

    I was heartened that Obama has at least paid lip service to constraining earmarks. But we know congresscritters love ’em. That Obama has so far chosen not to throw down the gauntlet at this particular point is something whose meaning can be interpreted in many ways. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt FOR NOW that he has chosen not to fight this particular battle right here and right now. In my mind, his silence does call his committment into question. Should his silence endure into another cycle, then one must presume that it was no more than lip service.

  • ExiledIndependent

    Kranky, one of your comments sparked a thought. When is it ok to waste 4 billion dollars? Obviously, never. I think that when politicians begin talking about percentages (“It’s only 1% of the bill!”) that should set off all sorts of alarms that we’re entering a zone of profound intellectual dishonesty. In these economic times and in times of prosperity, waste should never be tolerated.

  • kranky kritter

    That sparks a thought for me. When is it Ok to talk glibly about waste without defining it? Is all spending that appears questionable at a glance in fact waste?

    We all know what the word waste means, which is that absolutely no good comes of a thing.

    I am happy to criticize congress for choosing to spend money on things that don’t see very important. But I have to laugh at any attempt to simply sweep all 4 billion in earmarks in the current spending bill into the category of “waste.” That’s a giant logical leap that I am uninterested in taking, because my ultimate goal is not simply to brand democrats as spendy-happy wastrels.

    What this spending in fact concerns is items that some folks think are important or at least worthwhile, and which others do not. I am not, in principle, opposed to allowing important elected officials to exercise prerogative on occasion. It’s why we elected them, after all. I would simply like to see a more careful, constrained, intelligible process.