This Christmas Eve many taxpayers would be content to have the government take its grubby mitts out of our stockings. After a decade of runaway spending at every level of government (except Bogota), simply not facing even higher taxes next year would be just fine for the masses who have come to consider real tax cuts a whimsical fantasy. But the elves in Washington who have managed to elevate the status quo to mean tax relief, this Christmas request is within reach.
Some Republicans left town this holiday season feeling triumphant, with a no-tax-hike AMT patch, an energy bill that could have been much worse, a clean SCHIP expansion, and an omnibus appropriations bill relatively free of policy riders and ostensibly within the president’s budget limits.
But leading fiscal conservatives, like New Jersey’s congressman Scott Garrett, are less than content. Their major concerns with the omnibus are the use of budget gimmicks and emergency spending designations to mask higher social spending, and the large-scale re-emergence of pork-barrel earmarks. These earmarks fly in the face of the promises and rhetoric heard earlier this year from the new Democratic majority, claiming they would adopt house rules to end earmark abuse.
President Bush has few options but to accept the budget, but it is within his power to eliminate the more than 9,000 earmarks in the bill by upholding the U.S. Constitution and issuing an executive order demanding that earmarks should be eliminated. There is precedent for this action: Ronald Reagan.
In 1987, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill. At the time, it seemed pork-laden, although the earmarks numbered in the hundreds, minor compared to this year’s bill. In his 1987 State of the Union Address, President Reagan cited some of the more egregious examples of pork-barrel earmarks from the committee reports and said: “If you send me another one of these I will not sign it.” He then turned to his advisors to determine if anything could be done about the wasteful earmarks in the bill.
In last year’s State of the Union Address, President Bush said:
“Over 90 percent of earmarks never make it to the floor of the House and Senate — they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You didn't vote them into law. I didn't sign them into law. Yet, they're treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice."
Efforts by the White House, fiscal watchdog groups, and pork-busting heroes in Congress like Rep. Scott Garrett and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma haven’t been enough to get the job done. The recently passed omnibus, along with the already-enacted Defense Appropriations bill, has pushed this year’s earmark total to over 11,000. For Bush to succeed in stopping earmarks, he will have to do it himself.
In 1987, President Reagan’s budget director, Jim Miller, devised a solution to the earmark problem: uphold the U. S. Constitution. He determined that case law was clear that committee report language, which is where earmarks appear, is not law because it fails to meet the requirements of the Presentment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Miller (now a member of my board at Americans for Prosperity) instructed executive agencies to comply with the law, the actual legislative language, but to disregard the earmarks in the accompanying reports and to instead spend funds on their priorities based on project merit and the president’s priorities. Capitol Hill erupted in protest, threatening retaliation if their pork barrel spending wasn’t protected. Reagan had a bigger fight over Iran-Contra to deal with, and he backed down.
President Bush is well-situated to complete what Reagan started and put an end to report language earmarks. He has the public on his side, with overwhelming majorities opposing earmarks in poll after poll, and he has shown fortitude on fights like the SCHIP battle to stick to his policy guns in the face of Congressional backlash.
President Bush should issue an executive order directing agencies to disregard earmarks that appear in committee reports. Forcing earmarks into appropriations bill texts would enhance transparency and accountability while reducing anonymous earmarks. It would end Congressional shadowy spending policies in the omnibus bill, and has the virtue of upholding the U. S. Constitution.
Mr. President, all I want for Christmas is an executive order de-funding earmarks – you can keep the teeth, that’s not the government’s job anyway.
Steve Lonegan is the Mayor of Bogota, NJ, and Executive Director of Americans for Prosperity – New Jersey. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP Foundation) are committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process. He is a prolific writer, having been published in newspapers and blogs. He just published a book, Putting Taxpayers First: A Blueprint for Victory in the Garden State, that discusses the impact of the Trenton government on the well being of the taxpayers of the state. He offers solid and workable solutions. Learn more at lonegan.com.