President Obama expressed frustration with the $410 billion omnibus spending bill that he signed Wednesday, and rightly so.
Packed with pork projects inserted by congressional Republicans and Democrats who are better at speechifying about fiscal responsibility than practicing it, the measure passed through the Senate Tuesday on a no-accountability voice vote.
The real test of where senators stood came in a procedural vote on whether to shut down debate and call the question. Sixty-two senators — 52 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats and eight Republicans — voted “yes.” Thirty-five senators — 32 Republicans and three Democrats — voted “no.”
It is certainly true that many of the “no” votes came from cynical Republican senators who will soon be dispatching press releases describing the goodies that were packed into the spending bill for their allies at home. (Obama said he found “it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own – and will tout them in their own states and districts.”)
But there was also principled opposition from reasonably sincere conservatives (such as Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, whose disdain for all things governmental is interrupted only by a casual disregard for excessive Pentagon spending) and progressive Democrat Russ Feingold.
Said the senator from Wisconsin: “By passing the omnibus spending bill today, which included more than 8500 pet projects costing taxpayers $7.7 billion, Congress failed to show the American people that it is committed to spending their money wisely. When Congress passed the economic recovery bill to create or save millions of American jobs, it did so without including a single earmark. Congress should have done the same thing with this omnibus spending bill and it should do so with all future bills. The president should veto the omnibus, send it back to Congress to be cleaned up and make it clear to Congress that pork-laden bills like this are no longer welcome.”
That’s a sentiment Obama recognizes, and to at least some extent shares. “(Earmarks) have been used as a vehicle for waste, fraud, and abuse,” said the president, who explained that he signed a “disappointing” spending bill “because it is necessary for the ongoing functions of government.”
To Obama’s credit, however, he did not leave things there.
The president outlined a set of principles with regard to earmark reforms that he will urge the two house of Congress to adopt:
These principles begin with a simple concept: Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose. Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members’ websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves. Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.
Next, any earmark for a for-profit private company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions that we’ve already seen. Private companies differ from the public entities that Americans rely on every day –- schools, and police stations, and fire departments.
When somebody is allocating money to those public entities, there’s some confidence that there’s going to be a public purpose. When they are given to private entities, you’ve got potential problems. You know, when you give it to public companies — public entities like fire departments, and if they are seeking taxpayer dollars, then I think all of us can feel some comfort that the state or municipality that’s benefiting is doing so because it’s going to trickle down and help the people in that community. When they’re private entities, then I believe they have to be evaluated with a higher level of scrutiny.
Furthermore, it should go without saying that an earmark must never be traded for political favors.
And finally, if my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it, and we’ll work with Congress to do so.
That was not enough for Feingold, who is working with Arizona Republican John McCain to enact the Congressional Accountability and Line-item Veto Act, which would dramatically reform the earmarking process in Congress and give the president a modified line-item veto bill to strike wasteful spending projects from budget bills.
“Rather than trying to fine tune a fundamentally flawed process, we should take aggressive steps to prevent unauthorized earmarks, as Senator McCain and I have proposed,” said Feingold. “Our legislation would make proponents of an unauthorized earmark get 60 votes – a ‘super-majority’ of the Senate – before their provision can be included in an appropriations bill. I have also joined with my colleague from Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, as well as Senator McCain, in proposing a bill giving the president a form of line-item veto power to remove wasteful earmarks that are snuck into bills and send them back to Congress to be considered separately.”
Feingold’s usually the best player in the Senate when it comes to constraining presidential powers. But he’s wrong to propose that Congress ought to establish a line-item veto — which allows presidents to pick and choose the parts of budgets they will implement — that Obama is not currently seeking. (While White House press secretary Robert Gibbs glibly suggested last month that Obama would “love to take [line-item veto authority] for a test drive,” the president has yet to ask for the power of the pen that George Bush so ardently sought.)
Yes, what Feingold proposes is a “modified” line-item veto — as opposed to the more sweeping version that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1998. But it still hands too much authority to the executive branch. Giving presidents the power to target spending they do not like and to send it back to Congress for reconsideration shifts the power of the purse off Capitol Hill and into the White House. A president could leave pork he likes in bills while making a major issue of pork he does not like.
That’s not a reform, it’s a surrender of congressional authority to the White House. And if we learned anything from the Bush-Cheney interregnum, it should be that presidents and their aides do not need any more power.
Obama, a former constitutional law professor, is actually more right than Feingold, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee of the Constitution, when it comes to this separation of powers question. “Congress has the power of the purse,” says the president. “As a former senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. And they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities.”
Rather than making a too-powerful executive branch even more powerful, Feingold and other reformers should focus on repairing the process by which the House and Senate exercise the power of the purse that the founders wisely rested in the legislative branch.