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I can easily understand why presidents want to end congressional earmarks and to have the power of a line item veto. What puzzles me is why members of Congress would want to surrender that to them.
The quick answer "because spending is out of control" doesn't wash. The Constitution gives the Congress the power of the purse, although not the courage to use it wisely. These calls of "stop me before I spend more" are irresponsible buck passing.
Last week's $410 billion bill to fund the government through September renewed the debate over both issues. Less than 2 percent of that money is earmarked, and less than a tenth of one percent of that goes for health, welfare and other social service programs conducted by Jewish federations, agencies and philanthropies across the country.
"The omnibus bill contains nearly $7.3 million for projects and programs that UJC spearheaded in partnership with federations around the country," said William Daroff, head of United Jewish Communities' Washington office. "It will go for services for the aging, health and social services, caregiver support projects and security for institutions." Elimination of earmarks could have a profound impact on thousands of people - Jewish and non-Jewish - served daily by hundreds of Jewish social service agencies around the country. It would also remove any Congressional voice in millions of dollars in support for Jewish federations, and nonprofit organizations that are already experiencing sharp drops in philanthropy as a result of the economic crisis.
And then there is the $3 billion in earmarked military aid for Israel. Absent any Congressional mandate, an administration could use it to pressure or punish an Israeli government to go along with American demands against its will.
SENATE MAJORITY Leader Harry Reid of Nevada warned eliminating earmarks would hurt small states like his and "let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats." Rep. Peter King (R-NY) agreed. "Responsible earmarks are an absolutely essential part of my job as a member of congress. I believe as the elected representative I have a much better feel and knowledge as to what's needed (in my district)." The problem with earmarks isn't the money but they way they are handled. Too many are repugnant little night flowers that need heavy doses of sunshine to kill them. Let them be fully transparent, exposed to full sunlight with up-or-down votes. If the sponsors can't justify them in public, they don't belong in the bill.
And the problem is not partisan or ideological. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals are equal opportunity offenders.
The veto is also touted as an instant cure for deficits, spending abuses and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Wrong on all counts. It violates separation of powers, essentially surrendering Congress's control of the purse strings and handing legislative power to the executive. Congress by law appropriates the bucks, not passing the buck.
Line item veto (LIV) was tried in the 1990s, and the amount of money cut before it was struck down by the Supreme Court was negligible.
The veto is not a matter of ideology. All presidents have wanted it. Candidate Obama called for earmark reform, not elimination, vowing to "go line by line to make sure we're not spending money unwisely," but as president he's been coy.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who campaigned against all earmarks, has teamed with his campaign finance reform partner, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) to offer legislation giving the president LIV authority.
The House sponsor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), contends LIV "brings more accountability and more transparency" to spending. Actually, just the opposite is true. It permits lawmakers to pass irresponsible measures, grab all the credit and bear none of the responsibility after the president removes them.
Rep. King said the veto "gives the president extraordinary power to intimidate and in fact shake down a member of congress, saying if you don't support me on this bill, I'm going to knock out the hospital for your district or knock out the health care facility or knock out the school aid for your district." This week's omnibus spending bill - necessary because Congress failed to pass all appropriations bills last year - has some $7.7 billion in earmarks, about 60 percent Democrat and 40 percent Republican. Actually that's down considerably from the peak years of Republican control of Congress, and many more should be eliminated. But not all.
Even with the best reforms there will be abuses. But stiffer reporting requirements, closer scrutiny by outside groups and full public airing of who benefits can help eliminate offenses like trading earmarks for golfing trips to Scotland, jobs for family members or a Rolls Royce.
Earmarks are neither the cause nor is the line item veto the solution to the country's economic tzoris. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it well, "Freaking out over earmarks is like watching a neighborhood that is being consumed by flames and complaining that there is crabgrass on some of the lawns."