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Power vs. spending

Bush's offensive on pet projects in Congress is more about executive branch control than reducing waste.

January 30, 2008

President Bush announced a two-pronged attack on congressional pork-barrel projects in his State of the Union address, saying these earmarks undermined the public's trust in government. In addition to pledging to veto any spending bill that didn't slash the number and cost of its earmarks, Bush issued an http://executive order instructing agencies to ignore any project not written specifically into a bill. The moves aren't likely to have much impact until after Bush leaves office, but the order would remain until revoked by a future president.

More scrutiny of earmarks is an undeniably good thing. Lawmakers' pet projects account for a slender slice of the federal budget -- about one-half of 1% -- yet they feed much of the http://cynicism that the public feels about Congress and its penchant for spending. Bush's stance, however, betrays more concern about executive branch power than about taxpayer dollars poured into questionable projects.

Typically, earmarks don't cause the federal government to spend more on water projects, highways or weapons systems. Rather, they tell federal, state or local agencies how to spend a portion of the money Congress has allocated for those purposes. Local officials may lobby their representatives to earmark funds for their top-priority projects, cutting state or federal administrators out of the loop. Legislators also may seek earmarks for projects that were likely to win funding anyway, just to be sure -- and to http://tout the money in a news release.

There's nothing inherently wrong with members of Congress overruling federal or state bureaucrats and political appointees, as long as they can be held accountable for their actions. And Congress has already taken steps to increase accountability, requiring the sponsors of earmarks to be identified in the reports that accompany spending bills and to attest that they have no financial interest in the projects they back. Still, by pushing appropriators to shift earmarks from their reports (which aren't voted on and don't have the force of law) to the bills themselves, Bush could give lawmakers more time and incentive to scrutinize one another's pet projects.

His move to winnow the number of earmarks is less promising, as it would do little to improve accountability or reduce waste. Yet it could give appropriators more time to oversee spending by federal agencies. In particular, they could explore the sharp increase in no-bid and noncompetitive federal contracts, which more than doubled from 2000 to 2005. The executive branch has http://pet projects too, and they deserve as much scrutiny as Congress' earmarks.

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