The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Obama’s Earmark Reform? ShamWow!

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


On March 11, 2009 President Obama signed the fiscal year (FY) 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, which contained the nine remaining 2009 spending bills worth $410 billion.  After making dizzying campaign promises to eliminate congressional earmarking once he won the Oval Office, the President, out of the sight of the media, signed a bill containing thousands earmarks and schooled taxpayers on his new and revised view of earmarks.

His first hint of a deviation from earlier anti-earmark campaign promises was his conciliatory statement that Congress controls the purse strings.  The second was his comment about a distinction between “good earmarks” and “bad earmarks.”  The President said “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.”  This statement represents both a fundamental misunderstanding over the essential problem with earmarking, as well as a shrewd grasp of the breathtakingly short shelf life of campaign promises.

Since congressional earmarking represents an abrogation of the federal budget process, the distinction over whether an earmark is good or bad is meaningless.  The President set apart earmarks for private entities and public entities, saying that those for private entities should be “competitive.”  But earmarks cannot be competitive.  They flow outside of the statutory budget rules and are essentially unaccountable.  Therefore, it is impossible to determine the quality of an earmark, vis-a-vis other earmarks, and even more so to compare them to spending projects that are reviewed by agencies under the competitive formulas for grants and loans that have been written by Congress and interpreted by those agencies. 

Pork-barrel earmarks are simply delivered on a silver platter to the lucky recipient by a member of Congress without any vetting.  That means no hearings, no research by other members of Congress, no advance notice to taxpayers or media watchdogs (the few that are left), no floor debate, and no competitive bidding by an agency budget official. 

The President went on to say that Congressional Democratic leadership “eliminated anonymous earmarks and created new measures of transparency in the process, so Americans can better follow how their tax dollars are being spent.  These measures were combined with the most sweeping ethics reforms since Watergate.”  Not to quibble, but the fact remains that hundreds of earmarks worth billions of dollars contained in the FY 2009 Defense Appropriations spending bill were inserted without attribution.  Furthermore, the “sweeping” certification requirement mandated for those requesting earmarks has been easily gamed or ignored.  Earmark certification letters are not posted on a website for taxpayers to review and can only be viewed by physically trekking to Capitol Hill.

The President called on members of Congress to post their earmark requests on their websites in advance and for Congress to hold hearings on earmarks, both welcome suggestions, although CAGW’s calls for such actions over the years have fallen on deaf ears on the Hill.  Members have always been free to post their earmark requests on their websites voluntarily (then-Senator Obama was the only Democrat to do so in FY 2008) but most have refused to do so year after year, citing any excuse in the book to avoid it.  It is also unlikely that House leadership will comply with the call for hearings on the merit of earmarks, as that would mean they would have to discuss tens of thousands of requests; it would also mean they would have to be in session more than three days a week.

The President’s final reform pronouncement is perhaps the most specious.  He reassured taxpayers that if his administration “evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it, and we’ll work with Congress to do so.”  News Flash:  The nation doesn’t need a new, parallel earmark review process, especially one located in the executive branch.  There already is a perfectly legitimate spending review process which has the added benefit of being constitutionally sound; it is called the congressional authorizing process.

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