Bush earmarks plan roils Dems, fractures GOP

The leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee are calling on President Bush to back away from threats to kill funding for lawmakers’ pet projects.

The pre-emptive warnings from the top Democrat and Republican on the panel are the clearest signs yet that President Bush could face a bipartisan backlash if he uses his executive authority to wipe out the more than $7 billion in earmarks.

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Bush signed the fiscal 2008 spending legislation into law shortly after Christmas Day, but has indicated he might direct officials at federal agencies to ignore the nearly 9,000 member projects written in the bill’s report language.

The executive order would generate enormous support from fiscal hawks, but would roil already poor relations between the White House and the Democratic Congress — not to mention infuriate many Republicans touting the projects to their constituents.

Earmarks take on an added importance during election years because lawmakers want to show voters they can bring federal money back home.

A spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) accused the Bush administration of hypocrisy for considering an executive order telling federal agencies to ignore earmarks since no such order was issued during Republican control of Congress. The executive order would affect all earmarks included in report language that accompanies the appropriations bill.

“It is hypocritical that President Bush is considering issuing an executive order on a spending bill passed by a Democratic Congress with bipartisan support while failing to do so with spending bills passed by Republican Congresses in the past,” said Jesse Jacobs, a Byrd spokesman.

Byrd’s counterpart, ranking Republican Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE (Miss.), agrees that such a plan would hinder the appropriations process.

“Just as Congress takes the president’s budget request under very careful advisement, so should the president honor the report language Congress writes to accompany bill text,” said Margaret McPhillips, a spokeswoman for Cochran.

“Requiring all budget specifics to be included in bill text would be highly inefficient and would cripple an already difficult budget process.”

As the top lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd and Cochran are among the leading sponsors of earmarks for their districts and stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars for projects back home if Bush makes good on this threat.

Bush has the authority to issue such an order, according to a legal memo prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The memo, requested by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), says that because earmarks are typically included in committee report language, they “are not legally binding on executive agencies” and Bush could issue an order “with respect to earmarks contained solely in committee reports and not in any way incorporated into the legislative text.”

DeMint said that “nobody should act surprised” if Bush issues the order, noting it is consistent with the president’s 2007 State of the Union address to slice earmarks in half.

“I’ve yet to read the part of the Constitution that gives Congress the right to secretly waste billions of tax dollars on a bridge to nowhere and hippie museums,” DeMint said. “The president has the authority and the backing of millions of taxpayers to end the earmark favor factory, and I think he’s going to do it.”

Supporters, including a host of budget watchdog groups, say the move would serve as a lasting domestic policy achievement for Bush. They argue it would send a sharp warning to Congress to clamp down on the rampant earmarking practice that has drawn enormous criticism over the years and has been the source of federal corruption convictions.

But the move could create a sharp backlash within Bush’s own party and anger senior Republicans touting their projects back home, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (Ky.). The senator’s aides say McConnell has not discussed the issue with the president and would withhold judgment until such an order is issued.

Asked about the discussions surrounding the executive order, Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said OMB Director Jim Nussle is reviewing “all options” and will make recommendations to Bush at “the appropriate time” in regard to the omnibus spending bill.

“We remain dedicated to helping Congress overcome its addiction to earmarks and we’re hopeful that we can work productively with the Hill to eliminate wasteful government spending and instill greater transparency in the funding process,” said Kevelighan.

The same CRS memo also notes that the executive branch has typically followed the committee report language fashioned by Congress. Departing from that practice could result in strained relations between the two branches of government.

 “If they do it, it will be one of the biggest regrets they will have all year,” said Jim Dyer, managing director at Clark & Weinstock. The firm lobbies for earmarked projects.

Dyer worked as a deputy assistant for legislative affairs to President Ronald Reagan in 1988 when then-OMB Director Jim Miller sent a memo to all federal agency heads saying they did not have to spend money on the earmarks included in committee report language.

“They got more complaints from Republicans than Democrats; people were trying to get elected,” said Dyer.
Miller put it another way.

“All hell broke loose,” said Miller, now a senior adviser at the law firm of Blackwell Sanders. Within weeks, he backed down.

Bush would be swamped with objections from lawmakers as well. Nevertheless, Miller argues that Bush should pull the trigger and issue such an order.

“The extent of earmarks is much greater today. … It is obvious Congress cannot do it on their own,” said Miller. Citing the public distaste for the projects, the former OMB director said he believes it would be a political “win” to issue such an order.