WASHINGTON – President Bush was set to act Tuesday on his State of the Union promise to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to ignore any future earmarks not voted on by Congress.
Bush warned lawmakers he would flourish his veto pen if Congress does not rein in the number of congressional earmarks — money set aside for pet projects — that make it into law without a vote.
As many as 95 percent of earmarks are inserted after Congress has voted on appropriations measures, and the pork is never seen by most lawmakers. Bush called on Congress during last year's State of the Union to cut the number of earmarks in half, but Monday night he chided lawmakers for failing to do so.
"So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I will send it back to you with my veto," Bush promised. "If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote."
To that end, Bush was scheduled in the afternoon to sign an executive order called "Protecting American Taxpayers From Government Spending on Wasteful Earmarks."
The types of projects targeted would include the likes of which have been pilloried in the recent budget-writing session, such as an insert by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to provide $20 million for a "Ferry to Nowhere," or the $1 million earmark obtained by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for a museum dedicated to the 1969 Woodstock festival.
Earmarks grew substantially in number in recent years while Republicans were in charge of Congress, and draw criticism because they often are inserted quietly into bills near the end of consideration, and often are approved unnoticed. Because they have been used by some lawmakers to curry favor with political donors, some lawmakers have begun to declare which earmarks they seek.
In his seventh and final State of the Union address, Bush also advised Congress to trust the American people and urged both houses to take quick action to prevent a recession. He also declared his intentions to continue ongoing operations in Iraq.
He acknowledged a slowing economy but said a $150 billion tax rebate and business investment deal reached by the White House and House leaders would prevent a downturn.
"In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that growth is slowing," he said, acknowledging hikes in food and gas prices. "At kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future."
The House was set Tuesday to take up a stimulus package and likely will pass it as a "suspension" bill, suggesting it has overwhelming support. Though the White House and House leadership agreed on details of the plan, some senators say they want to add elements such as boosts to unemployment benefits and food stamps.
"The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable. This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working. And this Congress must pass it as soon as possible," Bush said.
The president spoke in programmatic terms in his last planned address to Congress but frequently repeated the refrain to trust in the American people, saying "the miracle of America is that our greatness lies not in our government but in the spirit and determination of our people."
"So long as we continue to trust the people, our nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure, and the state of our union will remain strong. So tonight, with confidence in freedom's power and trust in the people, let us set forth to do their business," he said.
But trust in the president is low, according to polls, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who offered the Democratic response, suggested Bush should latch onto the ideas of the Democratic-led Congress instead.
"We are Americans sharing a belief in something greater than ourselves, a nation coming together to meet challenges and find solutions; to share sacrifices and share prosperity; and focus, once again, not only on the individual good but on the common good," Sebelius said.
"On behalf of the new American majority — the majority of elected officials at the national, state and local level, and the majority of Americans, we ask you, Mr. President, to join us. We are ready to work together, to be the America we have been— and can be once again."
In his blueprint for his final year in office, the president said that the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens should be the government's guide. And in a tone suggesting familiarity with Congress' historically low approval ratings, he suggested that Congress make it easier for Americans to help lift up the country by passing several economic and policy initiatives, including a permanent repeal of key tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 and set to expire in 2011.
"Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800," the president said to laughter from Republicans and silence from Democrats. "Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders."
Bush's presidency has been marked by job growth for 52 straight months, an increase in wages and exports. But a decline in the housing market is straining many Americans facing ballooning mortgage payments and little increase in home equity.
Earlier in the day, the Commerce Department reported that sales of new homes dropped 26.4 percent in 2007 and the median price of a new home edged up by only 0.2 percent, the lowest rise since the 1991 housing slump.
Bush, whose administration late last year helped broker a deal with mortgage lenders, has been looking for ways to stop an economic meltdown.
Among his proposals, he repeated his call for lawmakers to pass legislation to reform quasi-public lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and to allow state housing agencies to issue tax-free bonds to help homeowners refinance their mortgages.
The Federal Reserve, which already has slashed a key interest rate three-quarters of a percent, was expected Wednesday to cut rates once again in an attempt to jumpstart the slumping housing market.
The president also announced his desire to eliminate or trim 151 programs the White House calls "wasteful or bloated," creating a savings of roughly $18 billion.
Bush said with that savings, the 2009 budget he plans to send to Congress next week will keep America on track for a surplus in 2012.
"American families have to balance their budgets, and so should their government," he said to applause from both sides of the aisle.
Improving Quality of Life Through Innovation
The president suggested that to make quality health care more affordable, government must trust patients and doctors to make medical decisions and give them better options through expanding consumer choice.
He said he has proposed giving tax breaks to those who do not get health insurance through their employers and wants to expand health savings accounts, create Association Health Plans for small businesses, promote health information technology and stop "the epidemic of junk medical lawsuits."
On education, Bush praised Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act, his landmark education initiative that passed with a bipartisan vote six years ago. He asked Congress to expand the bill to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts and provide extra help for struggling schools.
He said he wants to convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening opportunities for low-income students to receive good educations and proposed $300 million for children in struggling inner-city schools.
If approved by Congress, the "Pell Grants for Kids," named after the popular college grant program, would give money to families of poorer children so they could attend private or better public schools.
In addition, he promoted the American Competitiveness Initiative, which passed Congress but was never funded, calling it an opportunity to keep America on the cutting edge of science and technology by expanding the number of math and science instructors in schools as well as educational grants for research.
Bush also suggested trusting "in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs" and empowering them to develop the next generation of clean energy technology.
Bush noted that Congress started in the right direction when it passed an energy bill late last year that aims to reduce oil consumption over the next decade but said it still needs to pass a plan to fund technologies for clean coal, renewable fuels and emissions-free nuclear power.
He suggested helping pollution-prone developing nations such as India and China make greater use of clean energy sources through international agreements and said the U.S. is committed to strengthening energy security and confronting global climate change.
"The best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more efficient technology," he said.
Another area where science has had a breakthrough is the discovery of a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Bush said he is expanding funding for that type of "ethical" medical research, which "has the potential to move us beyond the divisive debates of the past by extending the frontiers of medicine without the destruction of human life."
Maintaining a Strong Presence Abroad
While the president conceded that domestic priorities including Social Security and immigration were unlikely to be achieved this year, he did revisit foreign policy issues that have dominated his two terms in office and which the administration hopes will result in a legacy known for its "freedom agenda."
"In the last seven years, we have witnessed stirring moments in the history of liberty," Bush said. "And these images of liberty have inspired us. In the past seven years, we have also seen images that have sobered us … [and] serve as a grim reminder: The advance of liberty is opposed by terrorists and extremists — evil men who despise freedom, despise America and aim to subject millions to their violent rule."
Bush said the surge in Iraq he ordered a year ago on the advice of his top commanders enabled the Iraqi people to stop worrying "that America was preparing to abandon them" and instead see neighborhoods cleared of terrorists.
"While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago," he said, adding that though his opponents will continue to deny that the surge in Iraq is working, "among the terrorists there is no doubt — Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."
After a burst of bipartisan applause, Bush said that because of the progress, the administration is implementing a policy of "return on success," and the surge forces will continue to come home — eliciting a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers while virtually all Democrats sat silent.
Already, some of the 20,000 U.S. troops on their way home have arrived, including one Army brigade combat team and one Marine Expeditionary Unit. They will not be replaced in the field.
"In the coming months, four additional brigades and two Marine battalions will follow suit," he said.
But after achieving so much success in Iraq, Bush said it would be foolish to ignore the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander there, who has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in lost ground.
"Members of Congress: Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen," he said, once again drawing a burst of applause from the Republican side of the aisle.
The president said the coming year will be used "to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy. American troops are shifting from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission."
He also stressed that the Iraqi government is taking responsibility for that country's future.
"The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. The parliament recently passed both a pension law and de-Ba'athification reform. Now they are debating a provincial powers law. The Iraqis still have a distance to travel. But after decades of dictatorship and the pain of sectarian violence, reconciliation is taking place," he said.
Bush said that the "difficult work" must be done now so that "years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America."
In the Democratic response, Sebelius suggested that Iraq was not worth the price.
"The last five years have cost us dearly in lives lost; in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same; in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere. America's foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies," she said.
As the troops begin to come home, Bush pledged to the service men and women that they will continue to have what they need to protect the United States and to return to civilian life.
Bush said funding for veterans has increased by 95 percent over the last seven years, but the system still can be improved to help wounded warriors. He called on Congress to enact reforms proposed by a veterans' care commission led by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole and former Clinton Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
"Our military families serve our nation, they inspire our nation and tonight our nation honors them," he said, calling for expanded access to child care for military children, new hiring preferences in the federal government for military spouses and the ability of troops to transfer their unused education benefits to spouses and children.
Elsewhere, the president pressed Congress to pass trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, arguing that it is America's duty to "show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life," a line that raised Republicans from their seats but left Democrats cold.
Bush said that other priorities also exist: achieving peace in the Mideast, stopping genocide in Sudan and getting Iran to give up its nuclear pursuits and destructive tendencies.
"Wherever freedom advances in the Middle East, it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it. Iran is funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas' efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land. Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon," he said.
"Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin," he told the Islamic regime. "And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home and cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops; we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf."
Bush said America is leading the fight against global poverty, hunger and disease by delivering food aid, investing in countries that have demonstrated an effort to pursue capitalist programs and sending medicine and educational information to reduce the number of malaria- and AIDS-related deaths.
He said, "We can bring healing and hope to many more. So I ask you to maintain the principles that have changed behavior and made this program a success. And I call on you to double our initial commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS by approving an additional $30 billion over the next five years."