Barack Obama’s one significant legislative accomplishment came in partnership with Senator Tom Coburn in mandating the creation of a federal spending database that showed how the federal budget got spent. Porkbusters cheered this bill, as it allowed for easy searches to research the connection between federal spending and elected representatives, especially on pork. Now that Obama has won the presidency, he has decided to end earmarks altogether — but can he do it? Obama promised this change at yesterday’s presser (via Instapundit):
One of the measures of irresponsibility that we’ve seen is the enormous federal debt that has accumulated, a number that has doubled in recent years. As we just discussed, my budget team filled me in on – Peter Orszag now forecasts that, at the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget, that we’ve already looked – we’re already looking at a trillion-dollar budget deficit or close to a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and that potentially we’ve got trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, even with the economic recovery that we are working on at this point.
So the reason I raise this is that we’re going to have to stop talking about budget reform. We’re going to have to totally embrace it. It’s an absolute necessity.
And it has to begin with the economic recovery and reinvestment plan that Congress will soon be considering, that we’re going to be investing an extraordinary amount of money to jump-start our economy, save or create 3 million new jobs, mostly in the private sector, and lay a solid foundation for future growth.
But we’re not going to be able to expect the American people to support this critical effort unless we take extraordinary steps to ensure that the investments are made wisely and managed well. And that’s why my recovery and reinvestment plan will have – will set a new higher standard of accountability, transparency, and oversight.
We are going to ban all earmarks, the process by which individual members insert pet projects without review. We will create an economic recovery oversight board made up of key administration officials and independent advisers to identify problems early and make sure we’re doing all that we can to solve it. We will put information about where money is being spent online so that the American people know exactly where their precious tax dollars are going and whether we are hitting our marks.
Did Obama check with Harry Reid? Ten months ago, Reid told reporters that the founding fathers created the legislature for the specific purpose of porking up the national budget. And no one will insult the memory of Washington and Jefferson by stripping Reid of his pork-barrel power, lest the Porkbuster be called un-American!
Unfortunately for Obama, though, the mechanism for banning earmarks doesn’t lie with the executive branch. Obama will have few options, even if he’s serious and not just spouting a bon mot for a little centrist credibility. Spending bills originate in Congress, and they have no restriction on how they construct the budget. Obama can veto bills with pork items, as John McCain promised to do, or he could extend the executive order that instructs his agencies not to spend earmarks as directed by Congress that Bush signed last year. Both would set up crises at the federal level between the two branches that I seriously doubt Obama wants to see erupt while we’re at war, especially with complete Democratic governance under test for the first time since 1994.
Otherwise, Obama has no more power to “ban” earmarks than he does to set debating rules in the House or to ban the filibuster in the Senate. As a supposed Constitutional scholar, he should know this. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not buying it for a second. Obama won’t go to war with Reid and Nancy Pelosi over earmarks no matter what he says now for the media’s consumption.
And in fact, Obama began backpedaling a few minutes later:
Question: … Earmarks, you said there will be none that get in there without review. Some people would argue even the so-called bridge to nowhere got review, some level of review …
Obama: No, no, no. What I’m saying is – let me repeat what I said about that … We will ban all earmarks in the recovery package. And I describe earmarks as the process by which individual members insert pet projects without review. So what I’m saying is, we’re not having earmarks in the recovery package, period. I was describing what earmarks are.
Question: So there’s – you’re not suggesting there’s some level of review that might …
Obama: I’m saying there are no earmarks in the recovery package. That, that is the position that I’m taking.
So Obama is only limiting his earmark ban to the recovery package, not overall — and even then, not entirely. Only those projects inserted without review count as earmarks. What constitutes “review”? A floor vote, or a discussion in committee among the porkers around the table? And even then, the only way Obama can get earmarks out would be to veto anything Congress presents to him with earmarks within it — and I doubt Obama would kill the centerpiece of his domestic economic agenda merely to make a point about a process he himself used repeatedly as a Senator. In fact, Obama never even mentioned a veto during the press conference.
I also find it highly revealing of the media attending this presser that not one reporter challenged Obama on his authority to deliver on that promise. It’s practically Con Law 101, or even high-school civics, and yet no one thought to wonder how Obama would “ban earmarks” as President. Pathetic.