Pulled Punches

Posted January 29, 2008 at 4:33pm

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Bush both led earmark reformers to believe that they would take decisive action on special-project spending to “rebrand” the GOP as the party of fiscal responsibility.

What has emerged is a pair of pulled punches. House Republicans did not impose a voluntary earmark moratorium on themselves to force Democrats to do the same and Bush did not take action to block any fiscal 2008 earmarks, as he threatened to do when Congress left town in December.

Instead, GOP leaders asked Democrats to join them in a moratorium pending recommendations of a bipartisan commission on earmark reform and Bush promised to veto any spending bill that did not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. We fear that the proposals will lead to limited reform, if any.

Democrats have not leaped to accept the GOP moratorium proposal. And, even if they did agree to it for a limited period, there’s no assurance it would still be in effect when appropriations bills get processed late this year. And Bush’s veto threat makes it entirely likely that Democrats once again will fail to pass 12 appropriations in a timely manner one at a time, but once again will wait until December or January — when Bush is nearly out of office — to pass a monster omnibus appropriation.

One thing we’re glad of — that Bush declined to trigger “nuclear war” with Democrats by issuing an executive order canceling 2008 spending projects not specifically included in the body of last year’s omnibus. That would have gotten what is likely to be a tendentious election year off to a dismal start.

There also are useful ideas in the GOP leadership’s letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), including a halt to “air- dropping” spending projects into conference reports when they never were voted upon, and detailing by Members in the Congressional Record of the purpose behind the earmarks they secure.

Bush issued an order instructing executive departments not to fund projects included in committee reports, but not in the actual body of appropriations bills. This is a salutary idea, but it can be circumvented — if Congress chooses — by inserting language in the bill giving the force of law to committee reports.

As we’ve noted before, Congressional Democrats made considerable progress last year in reducing both the number and size of earmarks from the exorbitant level they reached during 12 years of Republican rule in Congress — seven of them during Bush’s presidency. Democrats also have moved to make the earmark system more transparent than it was.

But the reform process needs to continue. One idea, advanced by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), is to adopt a process akin to base- closing commissions to pass on earmark cancellation lists recommended by the president, with the House and Senate able to vote the list up or down with no amendment. There’s no reason why Democrats and Republicans can’t act together to fix a system that has caused so many Americans to think that “Washington is broken.”