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If it weren’t for the holiday break, we might be reeling from even more Congresssional earmarks

January 6, 2008
Members of Congress have been out of Washington for the Christmas-New Year’s holiday, so our wallets are safe for a few more days until Congress reconvenes on Jan. 22.

But before the undistinguished members left town, they gorged themselves on pork-barrel “earmarks” like some over-fed buffoon at Christmas party buffet. An “omnibus” appropriations bill — that’s Washingtonese for spending everything on everything — adopted just before the recess contains nearly 9,000 earmarks. This from the supposedly reformist majority that was going to end earmarks as we know them.

But the Bush administration need not spend the money as designated by earmark language. That’s because the earmarks have no force of law. They appear only in the committee report accompanying the spending legislation, not in the legislation itself.

Therefore, even if President Bush is spendthrifty enough to sign the bill into law, the earmarks themselves aren’t part of the law and therefore agencies may spend the money on other things. That is the view of the Congressional Research Service, expressed in a recent legal analysis.

It’s a politically brave (or foolish, depending on one’s viewpioint) agency chief who defies the desires of the appropriations committee responsible for his budget, so one cannot expect the agencies to refuse to spend money without White House backing.

Instead of arguing in what most normal people consider completely abstract terms — whether $516 billion is too much to spend, but perhaps $451 billion would be just right — President Bush ought to focus on the fundamental corruption of the legislative processes that earmarks breed, and order agencies not to spend them.

Given the president’s spending proclivities, that’s more fantasy than a realistic wish. Nevertheless, the only way to truly stop earmark abuses is to stop using earmarked money.



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