Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 | 9:02 p.m.
Say farewell to the days when going to Congress meant bringing home the bacon.
In what might constitute one of the biggest constitutional consolidations of presidential power in the country’s history, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday in his State of the Union speech the end of the earmark era.
“Both parties in Congress should know this,” Obama said. “If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.”
It’s not a particularly novel suggestion from the Oval Office: Obama proposed an earmarks ban in this same speech a year ago. But the promise to veto makes it more than just a change in policy: It’s in many ways an upending of the political culture, especially in a place such as Nevada.
Earmarks, otherwise known as “pork barrel” spending, have come to represent the excesses of special interests and cronyism in Washington, especially through spending projects like Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, or Sparks’ infamous $225,000 pool.
In Nevada, they’ve also been behind projects like the Veterans Hospital in North Las Vegas, opening this year.
“We don’t think that a service for 50,000 veterans is pork barrel,” said Wayne Leroy, Nevada chairman of the Elks National Service Commission. (Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley secured a $350 million earmark in 2008 to help fund the $600 million project.) “That was about the only way that the hospital could get established,” Leroy said. “Now I’m sure this sort of project will be more difficult to do, if we’re able to at all.”
In 2010, Nevada ranked 11th in the country in earmark per capita spending, according to a survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia by the anti-earmark spending group Citizens Against Government Waste. Its $58.50 per head threshold is still a far cry from chart-topping Hawaii’s $251.78, but it still puts it in the top tier — targeted spending largely credited to the influence of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Earmarks are “our bread and butter, and the most time-tested model of how you win re-election,” UNLV political science professor David Damore said.
Reid certainly seems to think so.
“It’s a lot of pretty talk,” Reid said of the president’s pledge to, as Obama said later Tuesday, assure the American people “that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects” by vetoing any bill with an earmark in it.
“It is only giving the president more power,” Reid said. “He’s got enough power already.”
But with the economy still struggling its way out of a recession and the country at large hurtling itself headfirst toward a fixed debt ceiling, Obama has been struggling to respond with appropriately robust ventures to rein in Washington’s excesses.
First, he froze salaries of federal employees. Next, he promised to cut the budget — by $400 billion, Obama said Tuesday night. Now, the earmark ban.
This “will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” Obama said.
Some Nevada lawmakers approved the gesture, and the president’s other economic promises.
“I applauded the president’s commitment to demonstrating fiscal restraint,” said Republican Rep. Joe Heck, the newest member of Nevada’s delegation. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the president will follow through on his promise to concentrate on creating private-sector jobs. If the president is serious about his promise, then I look forward to working with him on it.”
But others say there’s no point to a gesture that doesn’t, in itself, cut spending.
Eliminating earmark spending — which amounted to less than 1 percent of the federal budget last year — doesn’t necessarily reduce overall spending; it just shifts the decision-making process from the Capitol to the White House.
“The only thing that would happen is it would create the potential for Nevada not to get its share,” said David Cherry, spokesman for Berkley. “Lawmakers can act as advocates to the president ... but there’s no guarantee.”
In focusing on the economy and spending, Obama made his administration’s investment priorities clear — although the president’s budget isn’t due out until mid-February. In his speech, Obama pledged not to cut spending in education, clean energy, innovation and development — areas he sees as key to ensuring the United States’ long term competitiveness.
“We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl that needs to be celebrated; it’s the winner of the science fair,” Obama said. “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” he said, adding that he would invest in, and expand, Race to the Top education funding — a program to encourage innovation in public education — and create 100,000 teaching jobs in math and science.
Nevada missed out on the program when recipients were announced last year.
That stands somewhat in contrast to spending cuts proposed Monday night in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address, where he announced a 9 percent reduction — which is actually 17 percent reduction if one takes stimulus funds that have been available over the past two years into account — to education spending. Nevada’s education system is ranked last in the nation.
But some lawmakers prefer Sandoval’s approach.
“The difference between Gov. Sandoval’s State of the State address and President Obama’s State of the Union address is that the governor gave specifics ... he told us his plan for bringing us out of the economic doldrums that we’re in,” Republican Sen. John Ensign said. “The president tonight offered very few specifics and I heard the term ‘investment’ a lot, and that’s just a code word for spending.”
Ensign is opposed to increased federal intervention in the education system and said the president’s freezing the budget at post-stimulus levels was unsatisfactory. Ensign is standing with several Republicans to call for a spending reduction that would include intervention into entitlement programs such as Medicaid.
Republicans are proposing a privatization of programs such as Medicaid and Social Security — a nonstarter with most Democrats.
“Republicans have a responsibility to work with us to create jobs instead of wasting time with pointless political stunts,” Reid said. “Instead of refighting old battles and pressing extreme, ideological plans to end Social Security and Medicare, I hope they will join us in finding common-sense solutions to the challenges we face as a nation.”
Ensign — who regularly requests earmarks for Nevada — applauded the president’s proclaimed moratorium.
“Earmarks are just buying too many votes to increase spending,” Ensign said. “I appreciated that in the president’s speech tonight.”