January 5, 2008
By Michael Franc
To better understand the never-ending policy struggles between
the president and Congress, consider the uniquely different
perspectives that both bring to the legislative process.
By virtue of his national office, a president is supposed to
rise above the parochial concerns that often shape the legislation
that reaches his desk. He must look to whether proposed laws serve
the national interest, as seen from the 30,000-foot perspective.
Members of Congress, in contrast, "are the representatives only of
distinct parts … and sometimes of little more than sectional
or local interests." While they should never lose sight of national
concerns, the Founding Fathers nevertheless expected lawmakers to
push aggressively on behalf of local interests and
That tension between national and parochial interests has
manifested itself with a vengeance in a quiet, but potentially
dramatic, internal debate now raging within the White House and on
Capitol Hill over how best to handle the thousands of
special-interest spending provisions -- known as "earmarks" --
which lawmakers stuffed into the gargantuan, end-of-the-year
omnibus spending bill.
President Bush recently signed this $554.7 billion monster into
law, but expressed profound reservations over the rampant
earmarking in it. Despite repeated promises by lawmakers to kick
their habit, nothing much changed over the last year. Altogether,
in 2007 Congress approved over 11,900 earmarks, many for
The list is long and embarrassing but, to choose one at
random, how about Rep. David Hobson's (R-Ohio) allocation of
$800,000 for a new Speedway SuperAmerica gas station, convenience
store and pizza parlor on U.S. Route 42 in Wilberforce, Ohio
This infusion of taxpayer support, a fawning report in a local
paper informs us, addresses a "vitally important" need in a
community "with hundreds of college students and no pizza delivery
or nearby fast food options." The president of the nearby
university defended the project, noting that "students will no
longer have the fright of driving with their gas light on E
Oh, the horror. The horror.
Little wonder that earmarks inspire widespread anger. One recent
poll found that 67% of Americans oppose these special-interest
provisions. Only 23% approve.
Yet lawmakers keep sneaking them in. "Over 90 percent of
earmarks," Bush complained a year ago, "never make it to the floor
of the House and Senate -- they are dropped into committee reports
that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You
didn't vote them into law. I didn't sign them into law. Yet,
they're treated as if they have the force of law."
Bush faces what students of President Ronald Reagan's presidency
might call a "PATCO" moment. PATCO, you'll remember, was the air
traffic controllers' union that flouted the law banning strikes by
government unions by declaring an illegal walkout during Reagan's
first year in office. Unlike his predecessors (who tolerated
illegal strikes by government unions such as the Postal Service),
Reagan stood up to the lawbreakers and promptly fired all 13,000
controllers. Those who didn't return within 48 hours were
permanently banned from federal service.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, our aviation
system didn't grind to a screeching halt. Replacements were quickly
trained and hired. Most importantly, Reagan set a precedent for
decisiveness and principled action that paid dividends throughout
his two terms in office.
Now, conservatives are urging Bush to adopt a similarly
principled stand and sign an executive order directing federal
officials to pay no heed to earmarks that appear magically in
conference reports or are exceedingly vague. They argue that Bush,
re-elected in 2004 with over 62 million votes, should seize the
principled high ground befitting our national chief executive and
do what he can to end this out-of-control practice.
It is precisely the role our Founding Fathers envisioned for the
Lawmakers, of course, represent narrower constituencies -- Rep.
Hobson, for example, was re-elected in 2006 with only 138,000
votes; legendary porker Sen. Ted Stevens won his statewide election
with the support of a mere 179,000 Alaskans. Just how much so is
jarringly evident in Hobson's pathetic assessment of his 18-year
congressional career. "I'm probably more proud of this earmark," he
said of the SuperAmerica gas station largesse, "and what it will do
in the future than anything I've ever done."
When veteran lawmakers are reduced to uttering such inanities,
it's high time to stop the madness.
Michael Franc is
vice president of government relations for The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in Human Events
To better understand the never-ending policy struggles between the president and Congress, consider the uniquely different perspectives that both bring to the legislative process.
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