By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Should President Obama veto the omnibus spending bill that is bursting at the seams with earmarks? There are two answers to this question, the perfect world answer and the real world answer. The president wisely seems to be giving the real world one.
If you haven't been paying attention, Congress is in the process of passing a 1,132-page spending bill funding a dozen cabinet agencies. It's a bit of leftover business from the last congress and the last administration. It's got, according to Sen. John McCain, something like 9,000 earmarks in it.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama promised that he would wholly change the budget process in Washington by going line by line through spending bills, picking out the wasteful earmarks, vetoing the bills, and telling Congress to send them back stripped of the pork. President Obama has echoed that promise ... but just not for this bill. Since this is old business, he says, let's just get it through and start fresh next year.
Now Obama more than most candidates has understood the importance of language. Remember he was the candidate during the campaign who thundered that words matter. And for the most part he has acted on that understanding, and discussed issues with not only intelligence but nuance—treating his audience as adults, not people whose attention span required that policy statements be confined to bumper stickers.
But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. One was his rhetoric regarding lobbyists, which set unrealistic expectations—and for which he has rightfully received criticism. Another such example is his rhetoric surrounding earmarks—for which he has rightfully received criticism, not least from my excellent TJS colleague Mary Kate Cary.
But the fact that he is taking fire on earmarks is no reason that Obama should now change course and pick a fight over this spending bill.
It's a matter of priorities—spending reform is one item on the huge, ambitious Obama agenda that includes a paradigm-shifting budget, the now-passed stimulus plan, a huge healthcare overhaul ... and so on. Democratic congressional leaders have already growled at Obama on this issue. Vetoing the spending bill and demanding that Congress strip out all of its earmarks would become an agenda-consuming fight with ostensible allies. In practical terms, the importance of earmark reform simply doesn't outweigh the cost of the fight.
And I don't think it would help the president very much with the public either. Earmark reform is supposed to have broad support in polls (I haven't actually been able to find any of these polls—if you know of any, please post links in the comments section below), but it's shallow support. John McCain has a monomania regarding earmarks. If this was an issue over which voters had any intensity at all, we'd be debating the McCain budget right now with Barack Obama remaining in the Senate.
If Barack Obama were to pick a fight with Congress regarding earmarks, voters would sit agape at why Washington was focusing on such mundane "issues" while the financial system comes crashing down around our ears. And they'd be right.
So the perfect world answer is that Obama should definitely veto the spending bill, pick the fight with Congress, and stand on the principle upon which he campaigned. But the real world answer is that he's got more important issues to deal with and earmark reform can wait until next year.
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