Both sides of the earmark debate are engaging in the usual shenanigans that define Washington. And in terms of political shenanigans, hypocrisy is a repeat offender.
Obama Administration: We'll Get to That Later
Appearing on weekend news programming, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag reiterated the Obama administration's position that the President will try to curb earmarks after the omnibus has passed. The White House has seized upon the fact that the bill was negotiated late last year in order to justify its failure to challenge the nearly 9000 earmarks it contains.
Sorry guys, but this one does not pass the laugh test. The bill was structured last year, but Obama, who campaigned on earmark reform (last year), also co-sponsored a $7.7 million earmark while he was still Senator (last year). Thus, even though he campaigned against earmarks, Obama still sponsored one worth millions of dollars. Now that he is President, however, Obama has deleted his name from the list of sponsors. The spending item remains in the budget. [Note: The Obama administration denies that the spending provision is an earmark. Please read the Congressional Quarterly article to see this argument dissected.]
Also, pork spending looks pretty bad when the government is telling people to tighten their belts, job losses and home foreclosures are soaring, and banks have received a trillion dollars in public assistance (also known as "welfare"). It seems that Congress cannot live up to the demands it makes of others.
Republicans: Do As We Say Not As We Do
Although Republicans sponsor 6 of the 10 largest earmarks in the bill and about 40 percent of the total number, the GOP has very loudly opposed the handouts. John McCain has vehemently contested earmarks and wants legislative or executive action on the subject. To his credit, however, McCain has not sponsored an earmark.
But some Republicans were "for eamarks before they were against them." Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, for example, voted for a failed amendment to the omnibus bill that would have deleted all of the earmarks -- including the $243 million in earmarks she sponsored.
Another Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, bashed the earmark-laden omnibus bill and Obama's proposed budget during a Sunday interview on Fox News. Kyl, however, stumbled when Fox's Chris Wallace asked him to respond to data showing that he sponsored $118 million in earmarks.
Even some of the most ardent fiscal conservatives have sponsored earmarks. Texas Representative Ron Paul recently accused fellow Republicans of being "born-again budget conservatives" for condemning Obama's deficit spending, while having previously voted for Bush's deficit-enhancing budgets. Given Paul's zeal for "limited government," it is not surprising that he denounced and voted against the omnibus bill." It is surprising, however, that he voted against the 22 earmarks worth $96.1 million that he sponsored.
Earmarks, Congressional Power and Transparency
Because Congress has the constitutional power to tax and spend, it can certainly pass earmarks. The problem with earmarks, however, is that the process behind them lacks transparency. Often, no sponsor is listed, and it appears that sponsors can remove their names (as Obama recently did). Congress does not subject these spending items to debate, and it probably never looks to see whether the earmarks present a conflict of interest.
For these reasons, Obama correctly challenged earmarks as a candidate. His focus on earmarks led to thunderous criticism over Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," which Democrats used to portray Sarah Palin as a fiscal hypocrite. After all of last year's political posturing, postponing the issue until after the ominibus bill passes will only invite Republican criticism.
What Is Really Going on Here?
Truthfully, both parties love earmarks. They help candidates "win points" back home, and can serve as the "quid pro quo" to push through difficult legislation and avoid budget battles. Also, in the absence of oversight by Congress, unelected members of the executive agencies would have much more control over the direction of spending. For these reasons, most members of both parties strongly support earmarks. So, to a great extent, the current debate over earmarks is simply a smokescreen to hide the parties' political gaming.
Republicans are using the earmark controversy to "shame" Obama for abandoning his anti-earmark campaign rhetoric and to portray him and the Democrats as "big spenders" and as fiscally reckless. They also want to stretch out to budgeting process in order to gain political concessions, to test their political power, and to undermine the perceived effectiveness of the President.
Obama campaigned on earmark reform in order to construct his ubiquitous "change" narrative. Now that the campaign is over, he must deal with reality and specifics. He and most Democrats oppose renegotiation of the budget because the longer it remains unpassed, the greater the risk of political embarrassment and the need to give more concessions to the Republicans. A delay in passage of the bill could cause a governmental "shutdown" (which is more symbolic than anything else) and would reveal vulnerability among Democrats, despite their electoral sweep.
Both parties are simply playing games on the issue. And as is often the case, these games have completely overshadowed honest discussions over the substantive content of the bill and the pros and cons of earmark reform. Washington is changing nonetheless: it was 70 degrees over the weekend. Spring has arrived!
PS: Voters also must think about their own hypocrisy. They want politicians to denounce earmarks -- but clearly, they also want earmarks and re-elect politicians who "bring home the bacon."