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An End to Earmarks?

It is possible.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2008 • By MICHAEL FRANC
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POLICY STRUGGLES BETWEEN the Executive Branch and Congress often arise because the perspective of presidents differs greatly from that of lawmakers. Presidents and vice presidents are the only national "officers of the Constitution." In the words of Joseph Story, an early Supreme Court justice, they are elected by "the whole nation in the aggregate."

By virtue of their national office, presidents are supposed to rise above the parochial concerns that too often shape the legislation that reaches their desk. They must look first and foremost from the 30,000-foot perspective: to determine whether that legislation serves the national interest.

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 the national interest, the founding fathers nevertheless expected lawmakers to push aggressively on behalf of local interests and constituencies.

That tension between the national and parochial 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 associated with its passage. Despite repeated promises by lawmakers to kick their habit, nothing much changed over the last year. Altogether, Congress approved more then 11,900 earmarks last year, many of them indefensible.

How indefensible? Consider Rep. David Hobson's (R-Ohio) allocation of $800,000 for a new Speedway SuperAmerica gas station, convenience store, and pizza parlor at the intersection of U.S. Route 42 and Brush Row Road in Wilberforce, Ohio (population: 2,000).

If you doubt this project serves a compelling national interest, perhaps you haven't read the local newspaper's fawning report. The article assures readers that the gas station 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 on the grounds 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 outrage. One recent poll found that two of every three Americans oppose these special interest provisions.

President Bush seems to grasp the issue. A year ago he publicly complained that "over 90 percent of earmarks 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 and declared 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, taxpayer groups and other fiscal hawks are urging Bush to make a similar 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 should seize the principled high ground reserved for our nation's 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 president.

Lawmakers, of course, represent narrower constituencies. In contrast to Bush, re-elected in 2004 with more than 62 million votes, Rep. Hobson, secured his reelection in 2006 with only 138,000 votes. Legendary porker Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) won statewide election with the support of a mere 179,000 voters. No wonder these lawmakers' views skew to the parochial.

But just how skewed becomes clear only when you hear something like Hobson's jarringly 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 is way past time to stop the earmark madness.

Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.