Obama sends the wrong message to Congress
President Obama had the opportunity this week to strike a blow for fiscal responsibility and good government. Instead, he essentially told lawmakers to go forth and sin no more. Hey, it's a federal forgiveness package!
Congress sent Obama a bloated $410-billion omnibus appropriations bill (HR 1105) that not only increased spending on domestic programs by 8% on average, but also provided $7.7 billion for a stunning 8,500 earmarks. I wasn't outraged by the earmarks -- I tend to view the pork-barrel process as a turf battle between various branches of government, not an exercise in Jack Abramoff-style corruption. What bugged me was Congress' evident disinterest in Obama's post-stimulus-package call to make tough choices and rein in spending.
"Disinterest" probably isn't the right word. "Disdain" seems closer to the truth. Consider what happened after White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tipped the White House's hand in the days leading up to final passage. In essence, Gibbs said the White House would abide the pork in this bill but would work with Congress to curb earmarks in the future. Here are Gibbs' comments on March 4:
The president believes the best way to reduce wasteful spending is to work with Congress in order to do that. We've seen throughout the past few years that the amount and the number of earmarks in legislation has been cut significantly. The president believes we can do even more and looks forward to working with Congress to ensure that that happens.
In response, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) gave Gibbs the verbal equivalent of the back of his hand. "I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do," Hoyer told reporters, adding, "I hope you all got that down." Yes, they did.
Hoyer's remarks may not rank up there with the Kremlin baiting lame-duck President Bush by rolling tanks into Georgia, but it was a test all the same. And Obama flunked. The White House doesn't have much ability to tell lawmakers what to do, but it can certainly tell them what not to do. And now clearly is not the time to provide big increases in federal programs. I mean really, how long can Congress continue to use the recession as an excuse to drive the country ever deeper into debt? The correct White House response to the omnibus bill would have been a veto, not a speech about what Congress should do next time.
That speech had nary a word about the spending increases that contradicted Obama's call for fiscal discipline. Instead, the president discussed his ambivalent attitude toward earmarks, which he contended are not fundamentally wasteful or corrupt. He offered some good suggestions for preventing the next Abramoff from using appropriations bills to steer tax dollars to private interests. Yet it rang hollow to hear a Democratic president with strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate say, "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business." No, Mr. President, the election you won was supposed to mark that end. As Obama noted earlier in the speech, with no hint of irony, "[L]eadership requires setting an example and setting priorities, and the magnitude of the economic crisis we face requires responsibility on all our parts." Let's hope the new administration's priority isn't to let Congress dig the deepest possible hole for the taxpayers.
Credit: EPA / Shawn Thew