George Bush will sign an executive order to defund all earmarks not including in legislative text -- for FY2009, not from this year's omnibus spending bill. The Wall Street Journal reports from sources within the White House than Bush declined to take the immediate action because he felt he had not sufficiently defined his opposition to earmarks in 2007:
We're told he will tell Congress that he will veto any fiscal 2009 spending bill that doesn't cut earmarks in half from 2008 levels. He will also report that he is issuing a Presidential order informing executive departments that from now on they should refuse to fund earmarks that aren't explicitly mentioned in statutory language.
This is progress, though frankly less than we had hoped because Mr. Bush's executive order will not apply to the fiscal 2008 spending bills that passed late last year. Congress endorsed 11,735 special-interest earmarks worth $16.9 billion in fiscal 2008, yet thousands of these weren't even written into the actual budget bills. Instead, they were "air-dropped" at the last minute into nonbinding conference reports that serve as advice to federal departments about where to allocate funds. This ruse means that earmarks are able to avoid scrutiny from spending hawks on the House and Senate floor.
We argued in December that Mr. Bush had the legal authority to refuse to fund those this year as well. But in the end we hear he acceded to the argument from Capitol Hill that because he hadn't made a specific earmark veto pledge last year, he would be sandbagging Congress after the fact and courting its wrath.
The President had, however, said the following last year: "even worse, over 90% 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. The time has come to end this practice." Members in both parties whooped and hollered in approval, even as they could barely contain their self-knowing grins.
This will disappoint the Americans who reached out to the White House to insist that Bush take action to force Congress to obey its own rules. He gave leaders of both parties a clear warning in that statement, but will give them a pass for another year. No one will have "sandbagged" Congress with an EO that applied to this year's budget, and in fact that sounds like a rationalization that came straight off of Capitol Hill.
It doesn't demonstrate much courage to put off executive action until the final months of his lame-duck presidency. Allowing the pork projects to stand also won't help rescue the GOP's credibility on fiscal discipline. Like it or not, Bush's actions reflect on the party, and this doesn't improve its position much. It has all the credibility of a parent who tells Junior that the next time he steals from his neighbors, he's really, really, really going to be punished.
Really. This time, he means it. Really.
The EO on future action at least sets a line down in the sand which will be somewhat more uncomfortable to erase. It will require a President -- Bush or his successor -- to actually issue an EO canceling the first and allowing non-legislative pork. That kind of overt act to allow pork-barrel spending will be political suicide, and the Congress that demands it will kill their own credibility along with the president that acquiesces. And next time, neither entity can say they didn't understand the rules beforehand.
It's an opportunity lost, but perhaps a baby step in the right direction.