The Rose Garden: Earmarks Won’t Spur Appropriations Vetoes

Posted June 5, 2009 at 6:19pm

As the appropriations season gets under way, Congress is in control when it comes to preserving its ability to write earmarks, despite President Barack Obama’s vow to limit the practice.

[IMGCAP(1)]Members love nothing more than to load up the earmarks in Washington and send them directly home to their districts and states, all neatly tucked away in a mammoth appropriations bill that no one will fully open to see what’s inside.

Obama has few options to stop Congress from adding the measures to bills — however unpalatable he finds them — beyond beseeching Members to behave themselves before they do it in the first place. And beyond the fact that he’s the president, they have no real reason to listen to him.

This is because, analysts say, there is little chance Obama is going to veto any spending bills, and Democrats know it.

It might seem otherwise. With the budget deficit scheduled to amount to at least a half-trillion dollars in 2012 — that’s the administration forecast, which many find optimistic at best — Obama could use a little show of fiscal discipline headed onto the campaign trail.

This is particularly true since he might be running against the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), both of whom balanced budgets during their stewardships of their states. Romney, who appears for now to have the GOP pole position, even made the 2002 Olympics profitable.

A veto of his own party’s spending ideas would give Obama some hefty credibility on fiscal discipline, particularly if his plans come apart for placing the deficit on a steady downward trajectory leading into 2012. Such plans depend on uncertainties like a performing economy, the enactment of significant entitlement reform and a much more placid military environment overseas.

Bush was pilloried for his habitual complaints about Congress’ overspending while refusing to veto a single appropriations bill. Bush aides argued that their unrealized threats nevertheless helped pare down the bills.

But an Obama veto of an appropriations measure and all its dangling earmarks is not in the cards for several reasons.

Congressional Democrats note that the budget resolution they passed is actually slightly below Obama’s request, so there is room to pad some of the appropriations bills without exceeding his overall top line. And even if he finds some of the individual bills larded up with spending beyond what he wants, the president will be hard-pressed to make a fight when so many of his own priorities are at stake. By vetoing any bill, he could jeopardize initiatives he holds dear.

“The more he plays to the premise that the appropriations bills are driving the deficit, the harder it gets for him to get his own priorities funded,— said one House Democratic leadership aide.

Vetoing the bills, even over earmarks, will also make the Democrats look like they are having trouble running the country, noted Stan Collender, a veteran observer of the federal budget process who is a Roll Call contributing writer.

“It’s unusual for the president of one party to veto the appropriations bills of the same party,— Collender said.

“Do Democrats want to look like they don’t talk to each other and can’t make the trains run on time?—

Obama could also send rescissions from the appropriations bills back to Capitol Hill after signing the measures, but such requests are easily bottled up by lawmakers. Only sustained bellowing from his bully pulpit could move a rescissions package through Congress. And that’s not likely.

There is a common misconception that Obama has vowed to end earmarking. In fact, his position toward earmarks is somewhat less than hostile, particularly after a White House meeting early in his presidency during which Democratic leaders demanded that he tone down the anti-earmark rhetoric.

“Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that’s why I’ve opposed their outright elimination,— Obama said at the White House on March 11 as he prepared to sign a fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill loaded with earmarks.

Far from slamming earmarking as the root of all budgetary evil, à la Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama said that “on occasion— earmarks “have been used as a vehicle for waste and fraud and abuse.— The trick, he continued, is to ensure that “earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.—

Remember also that as the appropriations bills begin arriving at the White House in September and October, Obama plans to be playing endgame chess over his coveted health care bill.

Sure, he could start vetoing Democrats’ spending plans while trying to keep them in line behind the legislation that could make or break his presidency. He could also start sending rescissions down to Congress and traveling the country to demand action, instead of horse-trading for the best health bill he can get. And it would then be perfectly clear that his Portuguese water dog is in charge of his legislative strategy.

So go ahead and buy a couple of tickets to nowhere. There’s likely to be a new bridge built soon you can take to get there.