Friday, November 21st, 2014

The Obameter

Reduce earmarks to 1994 levels

"Barack Obama is committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994."

Updates

Earmarks continue unabated

The final numbers are in, and as expected President Barack Obama was unable to keep his promise to hold earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994.

An earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. That's why Obama promised to curb their use.

On Feb. 17, 2010, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a leading watchdog group, released its study of congressional earmarking for fiscal year 2010. For that fiscal year, the group says, appropriations bills contained 9,499 congressional earmarks worth $15.9 billion. The group's "apples-to-apples" comparison found that earmarking increased slightly from the prior year -- from $15.6 billion to $15.9 billion.

So the group's study found that the amount earmarked in fiscal year 2010 was more than twice as large as it was in 1994.

After we ran our previous assessment of this promise, several readers said we should have taken into account inflation since 1994 in judging this promise. But looking closely at what Obama said, we concluded that adjusting for inflation is irrelevant to an accurate analysis. The exact promise was that "Barack Obama is committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994." The way this was phrased, the operative amount is $7.8 billion a year, not whatever the current value of 1994's earmarks are.

And according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense study, the value of earmarks in fiscal year 2010 was well above $7.8 billion. So our rating remains Promise Broken.

Sources:

Taxpayers for Common Sense, "TCS FY2010 Earmark Analysis: Apples-to-Apples Increase in Earmarks," Feb. 17, 2010

President unable to sway Congress on slashing earmarks

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that he is "committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994."

First, a little background on what earmarks are. An earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. So it's no surprise that Obama, like his 2008 presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has targeted them for reform.
 
But in reality, the president's leverage on earmarks is limited. The rules on how Congress operates are up to Congress. All the president can do, beyond using his bully pulpit, is veto appropriations bills sent his way. That can be effective for saber-rattling purposes, but ultimately it is a blunt tool, and one that presidents tend to be wary of, since using it risks a government shutdown if the existing spending bills expire without new ones in place.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told PolitiFact during early January that the group's running tally of congressional earmarks -- a tabulation widely noted in Washington circles -- had already exceeded $10 billion for the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills. That number includes the earmarks that Congress has disclosed. But judging by past experience, Ellis said, that number is likely to rise as the group continues its research, because in the past, many earmarks that have been created were never officially disclosed by Congress.

We'll aim to post an update when the group's tally is official, but he's already exceeded the 1994 level with what's been publicly disclosed. We conclude that the president's inability to curb earmarking, unsurprising as it may be, earns him a Promise Broken.

Sources:

E-mail interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Jan. 12, 2010