Obama and the oinker

Sure, President Obama’s approval ratings, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, remain sky-high. So he thinks that signing the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, stuffed with the farcical earmarks he likes to denounce, is no big deal. “Last year’s business” is what Team Obama has branded the porker, which is set to spend enough money to employ hundreds of jobless Americans on pig-odor research and tattoo removal for gangsters.

Obama decided against spending time and mojo fighting with Congress over these pet projects, which also included $150 million in earmarks secured by Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. As he gears up for a long year of battling over universal healthcare coverage and a cap-and-trade mandate, Obama saw fit to back down when the Democratic leadership in Congress told him last week they would keep those earmarks, thank you.

He may have been cutting his losses, but he also missed a great opportunity and invited the GOP to unleash again about his same-old, business-as-usual, liberal spending intentions. Not only was reducing earmarks a campaign pledge, but Obama had promised to go over all federal spending “line by line,” and has boasted numerous times about his $787 billion stimulus package passing the Congress without any earmarks. The White House is now promising new standards for future earmarks. “The rules going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to this desk will be done differently,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. In other words, diet starts tomorrow.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Congress has enacted many reforms already and is supportive of transparency and accountability but won’t cede its constitutional authority. When asked about new rules for the process, Hoyer said, “I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do,” and noted “earmarks” is a pejorative term for spending items added by Congress to a bill, instead of items added by the president.

With Congress continuing to bristle, Obama is likely in for a fight, and it is a fight worth having. Down the road Obama will need more credibility on spending, not less, as his policies continue to explode the deficit. Taking on earmarks provides him the chance to work in a bipartisan way with Republicans like anti-waste crusader Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and his former rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), while mocking the rest of the Republican Party’s shameful record on earmarks. It’s practically a gimme. When they controlled the purse strings, Republicans binged on earmarks, quadrupling the previous levels from Democratic rule. If Obama works to purge earmarks, Republicans will have to side with him, and after their resounding rejection of his stimulus package and his budget, what a sight that would be.

It won’t be easy to fight with his own party, and it’s hard to imagine Obama threatening to veto Democrats’ bills, but if the need arises, he should. If Obama succeeds, perhaps rodeo museums and centers for grape genetics wouldn’t pass muster again. For now, Obama will sign the 9,000 earmarks that did pass muster into law. Afterwards, he will have to answer to McCain, who, along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), is leading the charge for a line-item veto to rescind individual earmarks. Hoyer made clear this week that Congress isn’t warm to a line-item veto, which he said “skews the balance of power between the president and the Congress.” But Gibbs, when asked about the idea, said the president would “love to take that for a test drive.”

Even with those approval ratings, Obama better strap on his seatbelt.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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