What's that smell?


President Obama appeared at week's end to be intending to break a campaign promise and try to do something about the foul smell wafting from pig excrement in Iowa.

That's altogether unfortunate for those who wish our new president the best against robotic Republican resistance and who wish the country the best against politics as usual and bankruptcy.

We need for our new president to have credibility and to concern himself with more pervasive odors.

A campaign promise about the bad smell of pig poop in Iowa? Perhaps that's imprecise.

I must explain.

Here's Obama's promise from his campaign: "We need earmark reform and, when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure we're not spending money unwisely."

Earmarks are targeted expenditures for projects back home that members of Congress, acting unilaterally, plug into spending bills.

Senators and representatives tend to tell the truth about them. They say their constituents want them to deliver money back home. Anyway, they say, these earmarks are relatively small by modern federal governmental standards. They don't amount to much even when piled one atop the other.

But John McCain despises them. So Obama, rather than try to defend them as politically inevitable and too small to matter, which would surely have invited a rhetorical drubbing, uttered the aforementioned vow of line-by-line vigilance.

So now comes an interim spending bill of about $400 billion that needs to be disposed of perfunctorily so that government can function normally and Obama's administration can keep its focus on trying to save our very economy.

Obama was saying at week's end that he would sign the bill without any line-by-line earmark reform, even though it contains about 9,000 earmarks.

And yes, one of them -- the handiwork of Democratic senator Tom Harkin of Iowa -- is for $1.8 million to fund the latest science to try to get that smell of pig poop from being such a bother in his state.

The explanation by Obama and his key people is that this spending measure is a mere leftover from the last administration, since work on it began in October. They say it is therefore exempt from Obama's promise about taking a hard line. They say they'll put forth strict rules on earmarks for next time.

Obama's position is understandable. Earmarks aren't really political problems for those wanting their representatives in Washington to deliver the goods. The only people supporting Tom Harkin on pig odors, for example, happen to be the only people who can decide his re-election.

But, in the end, Obama's position is untenable, even indefensible. This spending bill comes to a White House where Obama, not George W. Bush, presides. The $400 billion will come from the treasury of his, not Bush's, government. If earmarks need Obama's promised reform, they need it already, not merely a year from now.

And if Obama cannot address the earmark problem now, then we're dealing not with a spirit of change, a chant of "yes, we can," but an inertia, a moan of "no, we can't," a concession to the status quo.

Earmarks won't go away easily, if at all.

And they certainly won't go away if Obama begins the battle by retreating.

The solution is a political culture that would permit and even reward candid talk from our presidential candidates.

Obama could have said as a candidate: "I'm not crazy about earmarks, but they're not going away and my opponent is talking about them only to divert attention from the greater scandal of the failed fiscal policies of his party."

The headline the next day would have blared, "Obama defends pork," and he would have been way off message.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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