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January 31, 2008

President Bush: "The People's Trust in their Government is Undermined by Congressional Earmarks" (2008 State of the Union Address)

Posted by Michel Lazare and Bill Dorotinsky

Here is a YouTube video on an excerpt from President Bush State of the Union Address (January 28, 2008). In this part of his speech, the President asks Congress to make further efforts at cutting earmarks.

This is what the President says about earmarks:

"The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks -- special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate. Last year, I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met. So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I will send it back to you with my veto. And tomorrow, I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by the Congress."

This the White House Office of Management and Budget's definition of earmarks (taken from its dedicated website: http://earmarks.omb.gov/).

"Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds. Congress includes earmarks in appropriation bills - the annual spending bills that Congress enacts to allocate discretionary spending - and also in authorization bills."

Reducing if not eliminating earmarking is undoubtedly a best practice in public financial management ( PFM Blog, in particular, recommends reduction or, whenever possible, elimination of earmarks).

So, it is a no-brainer. This part of the President's address must have been applauded by everybody, elected politicians, PFM experts, journalists,... Well, not really.

See for instance what Dana Chasin has to say on the website "OMB Watch" (as they website explains: OMB watch is "a non-profit government watchdog organization" whose "mission is to promote open government, accountability, and citizen participation.")

The President's remarks are part of a longstanding debate in the U.S. In the mid-1990's, Congress enacted 'enhanced rescission authority' to enable the President to delete specific items of expenditures-- dubbed the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996. Later declared unconstitutional, only one OMB exercise occurred to identify items for veto, and the results were less than expected. Many 'earmarks' appear in report language, not enacted by the Congress, and thus not eligible for rescission.'

Also, last year, the Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-81), which among other things reformed congressional procedures to make earmarks more 'searchable' and sponsors identifiable. The legislation uses the term "congressionally-directed" spending, which is not identical to OMB's definition of earmarks.

So, there appears to be broad support in the executive and legislative branches for making progress on earmarks. This is quite an opportunity. Perhaps the biggest risk to success is the absence of a common definition of 'earmark.' Perhaps if the technicians in OMB and CBO can hammer out one definition, it would enable the elected officials to focus on means to actually reduce the earmarks. Removing the technical issues from dispute prevents them from getting in the way of the real issues and solutions. That approach has worked for the Budget Enforcement Act (fiscal rules) economic assumptions, and could again now.

PFM Blog wishes success to the U.S.!

 

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Comments

For those interested in tracking earmarks, there's a nifty site called Earmark Watch http://earmarkwatch.org

The site is a joint effort of two nonpartisan organizations: the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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