Earmarks were supposed to be a thing of the past for Republicans after allegations of corruption cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006. Throughout 2007, Republicans acknowledged repeatedly that straying from principles had hurt them dearly. But changing their profligate ways proved difficult: Just 14 Senate Republicans voted against the pork-laden omnibus spending bill this month.
With 2008 on the horizon and President Bush heading into the final year of his presidency, here's one New Year's resolution all Republicans ought to make: We'll shut down the favor factory that churns out earmarks.
This year's $555 billion omnibus spending bill won approval just two days after it was introduced. This modest document ran more than 3,400 pages, so lawmakers hardly had time to read the bill, let alone comprehend its nearly 10,000 earmarks. The earmarks alone stand to cost taxpayers at least $7.5 billion.
With many Senate Republicans unwilling to make a stand, fiscal conservatives are now pinning their hopes on President Bush. Even though he signed the omnibus bill last week, he used the occasion to suggest he might cancel lawmakers' pork projects. Budget hawks were encouraged.
"Earlier this year, President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders pledged to cut the number of pork projects in half -- from the 2005 peak of 13,492 to 6,746," wrote Brian Riedl of The Heritage Foundation. "While Congress brazenly broke its pledge to the American people, the president's hands are not necessarily tied."
Bush has several options at his disposal: canceling non-binding earmarks by executive order; refusing to implement earmarks that are not sufficiently specific; and banning "phone-marking." Fiscal conservatives couldn't ask for a better way to ring in the New Year than a presidential resolution that tells spendthrift congressional appropriators "enough is enough."
Any move Bush makes will almost certainly inspire a backlash from appropriators on Capitol Hill. Even the Christmas holiday couldn't temper the anger of some earmark-loving lawmakers who were reportedly lobbying to get the White House to drop any plans to defund earmarks.
But fiscal conservatives weren't standing by silently. A coalition of 19 government watchdogs released a letter imploring Bush to issue an executive order directing all federal agencies to ignore non-legislative earmarks. Bush said the White House is still reviewing its options, leaving anti-earmark crusaders cautiously optimistic about their chances.
"In the last election, congressional leaders ran on a promise that they would reform earmarks. They made some progress, but not nearly enough," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "So my administration is reviewing options to address wasteful earmark spending."
While the battle plays out at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it also rages on the GOP campaign trail. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on Bush to "eliminate as many of these earmarks as possible."
Romney's statement came a few days after rival Rudy Giuliani released an ad condemning earmarks. "The Democrats talked about doing away with earmarks," Giuliani said in the commercial. "They're now doing as many, if not more, earmarks as the Republicans did. Let's actually do away with them."
When asked if he would issue an executive order as president, Mike Huckabee put it this way: "I think some of them ought to be vetoed. If they can't be vetoed, then ignore them." Huckabee also vowed to increase transparency. "A lot of things would change if we knew exactly how the money was spent," he said.
This issue is nothing new for Sen. John McCain, who has railed against pork-barrel projects for years. In a statement on the Senate floor, McCain chided his colleagues for rushing to "issue press releases … about how much pork we have been able to get for our states and districts." He then bluntly asked, "How can we, in good conscience, defend this behavior to the American people?"
The truth is that politicians can't defend this behavior any longer. Year after year, taxpayers have heard multitudes from both sides of the aisle talk a good game of fiscal responsibility and then watched as most fled the field at every opportunity to block excessive spending.
Now, all eyes are on the president. This month's events give Bush a new opportunity to send a strong message. He should use it to bring accountability to the appropriations process.
Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy
First appeared in Townhall.com