In The News

Should Obama Twist Arms?

Original Publication: The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2013
Article Author:
April 24, 2013

A burning question in Washington these days is whether President Barack Obama is using all available power to woo lawmakers and advance his agenda in Congress.

In recent weeks the president has been leading a charm offensive, hosting dinners with batches of Republican and Democratic senators in hopes of building a centrist coalition sympathetic to his goals.

The president entertained women senators at the White House last night.

But is more hardball in order?

At a White House press briefing on Monday, a reporter invoked the movie “Lincoln,” where the 16th president uses a mix of pork, patronage appointments, threats and flattery to win congressional passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery.

“I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power,” Lincoln says in the movie. “You will procure me these votes.”

Does the 44th president have “a philosophical objection to using” such powers? the reporter asked.

In some ways, the answer is yes.  Old school horse-trading has its risks and limitations for a president who came to office promising more transparency and an end to business as usual.

Notably, Mr. Obama has voiced objections to “earmarks,” spending for pet projects lawmakers would insert into legislation to help their districts and curry favor with constituents.

In late 2010, Mr. Obama devoted a weekly address to the subject of earmarks. He suggested that earmarks erode “public trust” while wasting billions of dollars. Speaking a few months later in his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama made a blanket statement that earmarks are unacceptable.

He said that “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.”

Congress has put in place a moratorium on earmarks. So it wouldn’t be easy for the president–  either practically or from the standpoint of ideological consistency – to  dangle earmarks as a carrot.

“The loss of earmarks makes it harder for the president to deal,” said Ed Rendell, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. In his time as governor, Mr. Rendell said, “there was always some transportation project or economic development project that some state senator wanted. … President Obama doesn’t have that.”

In the biggest legislative fight of the president’s first term, horse-trading abounded. As Congress passed a health-care bill, the deal-making was so wide open it spilled into the popular culture.

A sweetener for a Nebraska senator was dubbed, “the Cornhusker Kickback.” Another for a Louisiana senator was termed, “the Louisiana Purchase.”

As the public watched, the deals fed cynicism and shaped a perception that unsavory political tactics were used to pass a bill that would otherwise have collapsed.

Trading earmarks for a vote on gun control or other controversial legislation might trigger similar objections.

“Earmarks aren’t the magical grease that makes everything better,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog.

Written by: Peter Nicholas

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