Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stains on Obama's Halo

by Richard Crews

When I was asked recently to state my "Political Affiliation (optional)," I wrote, "Obamania." By the way, on the next question which was, "Religion (optional)," I wrote, "None yet (I'm only 71)."

Those of us who have become enthusiastically devoted to the Obama cult are hopeful that he will set right the ship of state, so badly damaged and turned off course by the Bush administration. In addition to being a brilliant public speaker and administrator and politician, Obama appears to have a moral compass which, unlike Bush's, is firmly rooted in history, respect for science, and pragmatism. (Some would argue that a "moral compass" cannot be "rooted in pragmatism"; that's ok--some people thought the Cubs would never get to a World Series.)

We saw Obama march through the presidential primary and campaign, getting it right--again and again--step after step after step. After he was elected, we were delighted to see how quickly and surely he moved during the transition, choosing experts to advise him rather than political and business cronies. And when he swept into office January 20th and immediately began to undo Bush's terrible economic, environmental, and foreign policy legacies, we raised our arms toward the heavens and echoed Oprah's cry of joy, "He is the One!"

Then last week two stains appeared on Obama's halo: he signed into law the Supplemental Omnibus Spending Bill to keep the government running until a new budget can take effect in September, but he (1) accepted, with the bill, over 8,000 "earmarks" and (2) wrote a "signing statement" negating certain parts of the bill.

Earmarks are a way of life in Washington. They are little bits of pork dropped into a bill in the middle of the night saying things like, "and by the way, this bill will build a new dog park in Ogallala, and it will use Johny's Tractor Supply to do the work." And, "where it says in this bill that 'somebody' will get hired, it means my cousin Benny."

Earmarks serve to pay back political debts and get campaign contributions so incumbents will get reelected. It is argued that "nobody knows better than the senator or representative for an area what really needs to be done there." During the Bush years, the average bill had tens of thousands of earmarks.

Obama promised during his campaign to end the earmarks game (McCain did too, by the way). Yet along came the Omnibus Spending Bill and he signed it with over 8,000 earmarks. In his defense, the bill was negotiated and finalized many months earlier and all together the earmarks amount to only about one percent of the $410 billion bill. But this is a worrisome sign.

As to signing statements, those are instructions a president writes when he signs a bill saying how he will (or that he won't) enforce certain parts of the bill. They are supposed to be rare; they are supposed to reflect the president's concern that some provision of a bill may be unconstitutional as written. Bush, of course, raised presidential signing statements to a way of life--he set aside some 1,200 parts of bills he signed (more than all prior presidents put together). This was part of his anti-historical, megalomaniacal quest for power. Many knowledgeable people--including legislative and judicial forces and the American Bar Association--went on record opposing Bush's use of signing statements as abuse of power.

Obama said he would use signing statements judiciously, if at all; and since he, unlike Bush, is a constitutional scholar (he taught constitutional law) and also a grown-up, we believed him--we trusted him. And yet with the Omnibus Spending Bill he wrote a signing statement. This statement rejects Congressional constraints on the president's conducting foreign policy and commanding the U.S. military, and also rejects certain new Congressional powers (see http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2009/03/wh031109.html for the full text of the signing statement).

Again, like the earmarks, this seems like a small thing, perhaps a justifiable thing, but it is worrisome.