By the Office of Management and Budget's count, spending bills approved by Congress for fiscal year 2008 included 11,737 earmarks totaling $16.9 billion, down from 13,491 earmarks totaling $18.9 billion in fiscal year 2005. That's a 13 percent drop in the number of earmarks and an 11 percent drop in earmark spending, far short of President Bush's official goal, which was to cut earmarks in half. The Democrats are still doing better in this respect than the Republicans did when they controlled Congress (though not by much), and Bush is in no position to give lectures on fiscal conservatism given his own profligacy. Quibbling over a few billion dollars in earmark spending seems strange for a president who, to pick one example, pushed a Medicare drug benefit that now accounts for almost a quarter of the program's $34 trillion long-term deficit.
Yet to the extent that pet projects help win passage of budget-busting abominations like the Medicare drug benefit, they represent a bigger fiscal problem than the numbers suggest. Earmark promises (and threats) reportedly played an important role in winning Republican votes for the Medicare expansion. Tellingly, The New York Times reports that Bush probably won't issue an executive order instructing agencies to ignore earmarks included in committee reports (as opposed to the legislative text), even though he would be on firm legal ground in doing so, because he does not want to upset members of Congress:
Congressional leaders of both parties, who are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with the president, said Mr. Bush would provoke a huge outcry on Capitol Hill if he ignored those earmarks.
Lawmakers, including the House Republican whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri, have cautioned the White House that a furor over earmarks could upend Mr. Bush's hopes for cooperation with Congress on other issues, including efforts to revive the economy.
Moreover, Republicans shudder at the possibility that a Democratic president might reject all their earmarks.
Earmarks help get things done in Washington, promoting bipartisan cooperation in Congress and cross-branch cooperation with the White House. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this may be the most important.