A Special Interest Carve Out

In his second State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to veto any bill containing earmarks:

And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this:  If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.  I will veto it. 

The official transcript notes the line was followed by applause.  After a decade of reckless bipartisan spending and earmarks like Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere that captured the attention of the public, the reaction of lawmakers was understandable.

Of course, the pledge came just a little over a month after the President signed a $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that contained roughly 6,000 earmarks.  And as CATO noted, the President’s public pledge was quickly modified: 

But late last night the White House may have begun to modify the president’s pledge. A “government reform factsheet” circulated by White House staff says, “The President intends to veto bills with special interest earmarks.” (emphasis added) This appears to create a class of earmarks that will bring the president’s veto, special interest earmarks, and a class that will not—national interest earmarks, one supposes.

All this history is relevant because last week, President Obama signed a bill reauthorizing surface transportation programs, which contains a very earmark-ish carve out for a railroad project in Alaska. From POLITICO:

Alaska Rep. Don Young brought the world the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Call this the Railroad to Nowhere.

Seven years ago, the veteran Republican created a cash gusher for the touristy Alaska Railroad by giving it a share of Congress’s mass transit bucks. In June, he stared down the Senate to keep the subsidies flowing for another two years.

The price tag: $62 million.

The article goes on to detail how the Senate stripped out the provision, which was added back in at the last minute during the conference committee negotiations:

Sources close to the talks said that the earmark ban gave Young an ironic advantage in the endgame. Because other House members weren’t asking for special carve-outs, his proved an easy win. 

Erich Zimmermann with Taxpayers for Common Sense said, “This smacks of parochialism and underlines what we consider an earmark.”  Does the White House consider it an earmark?  What about those who interpret House and Senate rules?

Perhaps Nancy Pelosi was right about one thing: in Washington, you still have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.

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