Political cravenness on earmarks

Somewhere in comedian Robin Williams’ vast body of work, we remember him challenging some spineless character by asking, “Are you a man, or an amoeba?” The question seems appropriate for both President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans because in the space of a week, they demonstrated an utter lack of political spine to block earmarks — the gateway drug to federal spending addiction.

Earmarks — provisions inserted by individual members directing the executive branch to spend tax dollars on specific projects, often to specific companies — not only cost billions of dollars each year, but also promote a culture of corruption between special-interest lobbyists and the incumbents who bilk them for campaign cash. Earmarks are also used to buy members’ votes for big spending entitlement programs they would otherwise oppose. Worst of all, most earmarks are “air-dropped” into bill reports that are never voted on by Congress or signed by the president. That means such earmarks aren’t legally binding, but executive branch officials abide by them anyway for fear of running afoul of powerful congressmen. Congress adopted 11,735 earmarks worth $16.9 billion for 2008. Considering how the earmarks corrode the democratic system, that’s $16.9 billion too much.

In January, both the president and congressional Republicans could have taken clear-cut stands for an immediate end of all earmarks. Instead, Bush and congressional GOPers settled for pathetic half-measures. House Republicans originally assured conservative bloggers that they would adopt a one-year ban on all earmarks — itself far weaker than the permanent ban they should adopt without need of debate — but instead retreated to sending a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, suggesting she appoint another useless bipartisan panel to study the issue.

As for President Bush, he has been considering an executive order telling all agencies to ignore every earmark in the nonbinding report language for this fiscal year. But, just as his father frequently did during his one term in the Oval Office, the president went wobbly. Instead, last Tuesday he signed an executive order to ignore all such earmarks in future years. Of course, as 2008 is this president’s final year in office, he won’t even be around to enforce the order.

This is pitiful. In 1993, then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Natcher, a Kentucky Democrat, imposed a complete ban on earmarks. Unfortunately, he was dead within a year, so his edict went away. But if the left-leaning Natcher could take such a stand then, why can’t faux conservatives in the GOP show some spine today?

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