The Final State of the Union
President Obama declares turning point on earmark reform
Today President Obama signed the final version of last year’s budget, as posted here on Friday while it was making its way through Congress, in order to keep the government functioning. As he explained, there was much to speak well of in the bill:
Now, yesterday Congress sent me the final part of last year's budget; a piece of legislation that rolls nine bills required to keep the government running into one, a piece of legislation that addresses the immediate concerns of the American people by making needed investments in line with our urgent national priorities.
That's what nearly 99 percent of this legislation does -- the nearly 99 percent that you probably haven't heard much about.
However, the President continued, "What you likely have heard about is that this bill does include earmarks." He made several points, noting that earmarks need not be inherently evil if they are simply transparent requests for help in areas of legitimate need, and that many who would focus all of their energies railing against earmarks often fight to the teeth for their own.
But the President made clear that there have also been too many examples where earmarking led to corruption, and that while significant progress had been made in the last Congress there is still ample room for reform. He called on Congress to act this year on the principles he set forth, principles that Congressional analyst and historian Norm Ornstein called "a solid, practical and comprehensive set of new steps to take us much closer to the kind of meaningfully balanced system the American people deserve," adding that "The president's proposal is real reform." President Obama laid the principles out clearly:
In my discussions with Congress, we have talked about the need for further reforms to ensure that the budget process inspires trust and confidence instead of cynicism. So I believe as we move forward, we can come together around principles that prevent the abuse of earmarks.
These principles begin with a simple concept: Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose. Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves. Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.
Next, any earmark for a for-profit private company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions that we've already seen. Private companies differ from the public entities that Americans rely on every day –- schools, and police stations, and fire departments.
When somebody is allocating money to those public entities, there's some confidence that there's going to be a public purpose. When they are given to private entities, you've got potential problems. You know, when you give it to public companies -- public entities like fire departments, and if they are seeking taxpayer dollars, then I think all of us can feel some comfort that the state or municipality that's benefitting is doing so because it's going to trickle down and help the people in that community. When they're private entities, then I believe they have to be evaluated with a higher level of scrutiny.
Furthermore, it should go without saying that an earmark must never be traded for political favors.
And finally, if my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it, and we'll work with Congress to do so.