White House Backs Off of Obama Earmarks Pledge

In the state of the union speech last night, President Obama said with great force:

[I]f a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.

This appeared to settle the earmark question once and for all. The Republican House and Republicans in the Senate had already sworn off earmarks. Senate Democrats, who may have been holding out hope for preserving this prerogative, will not get to do earmarks. So says the president of the United States, veto pen in hand.

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.

Defining what is an “earmark” is difficult, though not impossible, as the groups that have worked on the earmarking problem can tell you. But the distinction between “special interest earmarks” and “national interest earmarks” appears to be something the president would make for himself. This withdraws a great deal of force from the “no earmarks” pledge.

It’s certainly possible that the “special interest” language in the fact sheet is surplussage simply meant to illustrate that earmarks are a “special interest” problem. But we will have to watch and see whether the president walks away from his statements about controlling earmarks, as he has done before.