President Barack Obama promises to cut the federal deficit in half by 2013. He also promises that appropriations bills will be free of earmarks during his presidency. These claims are belied by the omnibus spending bill that Democrats are trying to rush through Congress. The bill is larded with pork and would significantly increase fiscal year 2009 spending, and by funding agencies that just received a major boost from the stimulus bill.
The omnibus package is made of nine appropriations bills left over from last year. In September 2008, Pres. George W. Bush signed into law the only three appropriations bill — totaling $600 billion in spending — completed at the time: Defense, Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs. Congress faces a tight time frame for getting the omnibus to Pres. Obama’s desk, since the agencies covered by the measure are being funded at last year’s levels through March 6.
The omnibus would provide $410 billion in discretionary spending. That’s $31 billion (or 8 percent) more than the amount contained in the FY2008 versions of these nine appropriations bills, and it’s $19 billion more than Pres. Bush requested for FY2009. Agriculture is scheduled to get $20 billion in spending — $2 billion more than Bush’s request — after getting $26 billion from the stimulus. In fact, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), if the omnibus bill goes through, most federal agencies would get a 50 percent to 80 percent funding boost between 2009 and 2010, if you include the stimulus funds.
Hundreds of groups — including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the National Education Association (NEA) — that have already received billions of tax dollars from the stimulus plan will get another serving from the omnibus spending bill. Also, thanks to the $1 billion in stimulus funding and another $3.9 billion in the omnibus, the Census Bureau’s budget for 2009 will nearly triple over last year. The National Endowment for the Arts will receive a 57 percent funding increase over FY2008 thanks to $50 million in the stimulus and another $138 million in the omnibus. And Amtrak will see its funding double in FY2009 after receiving $850 million from the stimulus and another $940 million from the omnibus.
How can President Obama justify this fiscal double dipping? Didn’t he campaign on a promise to reduce earmarks? Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a nonpartisan watchdog organization that tracks pork, found 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion in the proposed omnibus bill. Adding those to the $6.6 billion in earmarks passed last fall, TSC calculates a total of $14.3 billion in pork appropriated for FY2009 — a mere $500 million less than the year before.
Some of the earmarks include $713,625 for woody biomass at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry; $951,500 for “Sustainable Las Vegas”; $24,000 for the “A+ for Abstinence” program; $300,000 for the Montana World Trade Center; $950,000 for the Myrtle Beach International Trade and Convention Center; $200,000 for the Oil Region Alliance; $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., for digitizing and editing the Cody collection; and $143,000 for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, to expand natural-history education programs.
Interestingly, according to a Congressional Quarterly story published on February 26, “President Obama, who took a no-earmark pledge on the campaign trail, is listed as one of dozens of cosponsors of a $7.7 million set-aside in the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill passed by the House on Wednesday.” The earmark is for vocational training at two schools run by American Indian groups in New Mexico and North Dakota. Shortly after the news broke, Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Rob Blumenthal said that Obama’s name would be removed from future versions of the congressional report identifying earmarks and their sponsors.
Obviously, U.S. lawmakers’ love for pork was not altered by the economic crisis. An amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain to get rid of earmarks was easily defeated, and Sen. Coburn was told that he couldn’t introduce additional amendments. Democrats even told the president not to bother asking them to cut earmarks out the bill because they wouldn’t.
We are in the midst of a serious crisis, and yet Congress and the president have embarked on an irresponsible spending bonanza. The only question is, How much are they willing to put on our children’s tab?
– Veronique de Rugy is an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where Alex Bright is a program associate.