Perhaps one of President Obama's biggest applause lines during Tuesday's State of the Union Address was his vow to veto any spending bill which includes earmarks, which have long been a conservative gripe about federal spending. [Read a brief history of the State of the Union.]
But one of the Senate's top Republicans, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, claimed that the earmark ban wouldn't make a difference to the federal budget. "You're just taking money from one pot and putting it in another pot," Alexander said Wednesday morning, during an event sponsored by the Atlantic and the National Journal. "It doesn't save a single penny. It's good government, maybe."
Earmarks have long been a potent symbol of government overspending, but now that an earmark ban is in place, lawmakers in both parties have noted that they account for only a fraction of the federal budget. Defenders of earmarks note that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to direct spending, and that eliminating earmarks only gives more power to the executive branch to direct dollars to specific projects. [See who gives the most to Lamar Alexander.]
Alexander also criticized Obama's proposal to freeze most government spending for the next five years, claiming it would only be a "modest" cut. Likening the deficit to a "house on fire," Alexander claimed that President Obama must act to cut growth in Medicare and Medicaid spending--and that now, with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, was the perfect time. "We've got to start restraining growth," Alexander said. "That will not happen until we have divided government, which is the opportunity for the president and Republicans to work together."
Speaking later at the event, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois countered that during the healthcare debate, Republicans blasted Democrats for proposing cuts to some Medicare programs. Durbin also cautioned against hitting the "deficit brakes" too abruptly, claiming that it could hurt the economic recovery. The senior Democrat also said that any discussion about reining in the deficit must also include eliminating tax loopholes.