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Shoot It Down

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," Congress's earmark addiction. Will big spenders in the House spell trouble for Republicans this fall? And the debate over Iraq heats up with Senate Democrats divided on whether and when to end the military mission. Plus, all eyes are on the launch pad as North Korea prepares to test a ballistic missile that could reach American soil. How should the U.S. respond? But first these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot. Of all the problems facing congressional Republicans this November, voter frustration with runaway spending is one of the biggest. Since taking control of Congress in 1994, the number of earmarks, often referred to as pork-barrel projects, has more than tripled. Earlier this week I spoke with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, a leading supporter of earmark reform and asked him how big a problem that was for his party.

Flake: Politically it's a huge problem. We've always sold ourselves as the party of limited government, and it's very difficult to be perceived as that when you're earmarking bills like this: bridge to nowhere, swimming pools in California. It's just crazy.

Gigot: Let me read a quote from one of your colleagues, Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, defending earmarks. He said recently, "I don't think I was elected to come here and just bow down to the White House and Office of Management and Budget when it comes to spending priorities." Unquote. Now why shouldn't Curt Weldon be able to pass out spending for his district? Isn't that what his voters expect?

Flake: Well, not this kind of spending. What these earmarks usually are, are items in the HUD bill, for example, or in transportation, Treasury. They're for swimming pools. They're for things that really we shouldn't be doing. If you accept the premise that we ought to be spending all of this money, then you might be able to make a better case that it ought to be congressionally directed and not by the administration. But conservatives believe that a lot of this money simply shouldn't be spent. I mean, should we be spending money building a swimming pool in Banning, Calif.? If you accept that we should, then the question is, Who should do it? The conservatives have always believed that that's something that's best left to local governments. That's not something the federal government ought to be involved in.

Gigot: So your argument here is that Republicans and conservatives, alleged conservatives, are betraying their fiscal conservative credentials and principles?

Flake: Yes. Yes. And even if you concede that it ought to be Congress directing this spending the way that we do it in this earmarking process is not transparent. There's no accountability; there's no oversight. In the transportation-Treasury bill just a week ago, 1,500 earmarks were added just three days before we took the bill up on the House floor. My staff couldn't even get those earmarks to see what they were until three days before. And then we didn't know, still--there were no names on them, so we didn't know who requested them, and they were extremely vague as to what the purpose was. Building a "facility" in a city in West Virginia. What kind of facility? We don't even know. So there's no transparency, and that's the biggest problem.

Gigot: Well, there's another defense of earmarks that your colleagues make, and that is that, Look it's only $67 billion, even if it's 13,000 earmarks, that's not the big money in a $2.5 trillion budget. The big money is in Medicare and Medicaid and entitlements, and if Jeff Flake wants to fix the budget problem, go after the big targets. Don't go after the small stuff. How do you respond to that?

Flake: Well, the problem with earmarks is they are very much, as Tom Coburn in the Senate described them, "the gateway drug to spending addiction." Once you get earmarks in a bill, you have to vote for the bill regardless of how bloated it becomes. And so you've leveraged your vote for earmarks, and so you vote for bigger bills than you would otherwise. Also, when you talk about entitlements, the Medicare prescription drug benefit that was passed, I would submit that it wouldn't have been passed were if not for earmarks in related bills or other, unrelated bills. Because members wanted to protect those earmarks, they felt obligated to go along with the leadership and vote for the prescription drug benefit. That will cost us about $11 trillion in unfunded liabilities in the next 75 years. So it very much impacts other spending as well.

Gigot: I'm sure you have heard from your colleagues when they say, Look, all you're doing with these amendments on the House floor, trying to strike these earmarks, is embarrassing us. You're embarrassing Republicans. You're only getting 60 or so colleagues to go with you, so you're losing the votes. And you well know that Democrats would be just as bad, or might be just as bad, so why are you hurting Republican chances to maintain the House of Representatives control in November?

Flake: Well, I was told, You're just frustrated with the process. Well, I have to concede I am. But a lot of people are, and this is simply the only way we can highlight the problem. This is the only oversight these programs or these earmarks ever receive is five minutes on the floor with a half dozen or so that you can highlight out of thousands that are offered. But I would submit that the vote we'll have today on the line-item veto will be different than it would otherwise, because people are more sense active to the problems, the political problems, with earmarking. So I think it is having an impact. The lobby reform bill that we passed in the House and the Senate that we have yet to reconcile, that would not have had without the prospect of embarrassment like this on the House floor.

Gigot: Do you think that Jerry Lewis, who is the head of the Appropriations Committee, and he is under investigation, as all the newspapers have reported, for some of the earmarks going to political friends--now he hasn't been charged with anything. But do you think he ought to step down as chairman of Appropriations?

Flake: Well, I am not going to ask him to. I simply think the whole process is out of control and your Appropriations Committee could do a lot more than they are doing to rein in earmarks. And it is unbelievable, given the scrutiny we are all under now, that we continue to go on and still not put names next to earmarks even though we passed the legislation in the House. I would think the Appropriations Committee could make a good-faith effort to comply with this. But still, after I challenged nine earmarks two days ago on the House floor, of the nine I challenged, I still don't know who the author is on two of them. They wouldn't even come and defend them on the House floor, yet we upheld them.

Gigot: All right, congressman. Well, thank you for being here, and keep up the good fight. Thanks.

Flake: Thank you.

Gigot: When we come back, Democratic Party divisions were on full display this week as the Senate debated two resolutions to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. What's the impact in Iraq and for congressional elections in November? Plus, will they or won't they? Tensions grow over North Korea's plans to test a long-range nuclear missile. Should the U.S. take pre-emptive action? Our panel weighs in on those topics, and our "Hits and Misses" of the week, when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Sen. John Kerry: This is not cut and run. This is a smart way to win the war on terror. And our own generals--and I know the chairman has heard it and I know others have heard it--know that they believe our presence is contributing to the problems.

Gigot: Under increasing pressure from the antiwar wing of their party, Senate Democrats this week debated two resolutions calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. A proposal introduced by Sens. Carl Levin and Jack Reed called for a gradual redeployment of American forces without a definitive deadline, while an amendment offered by Sens. John Kerry and Russ Feingold called for U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by next summer. Though both were easily defeated in the Republican-controlled Senate, the showdown was seen by many as a preview of the 2000 presidential debate--2008 presidential debate.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger, deputy editor Melanie Kirkpatrick and foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens.

Bret, this is an amazing political turnabout. I mean, two or three weeks ago the Iraq war was thought to be a big Republican disadvantage. But what we have seen in the House and this week in the Senate is that the Democrats are now divided on Iraq. What changed?

Stephens: Well, John Kerry came to the rescue is what changed.

Gigot: Of Republicans you mean.

Stephens: Of Republicans, as he has in the past. Look, the Republican Party I think decided in the last few months that they have to own this war, and it's associated with the Republican Party, with the president, they can't run away from it, and they're not going to win in this congressional season if they're seen as running away from it. And I think there was also a perception that there were real divisions in the Democratic Party and that the Democrats fundamentally don't have the courage of their convictions, and I think Republican strategists understood that to a large extent the public is going to support the party that shows that it has the courage of its convictions, and it's not going to support a party that wants us to be defeated by Zarqawi or his successors.

Henninger: I think one thing about the Democrats is that--a lot of Democratic voters do in fact have the courage of their convictions. This is a postwar Democratic Party--not a post-World War II party, a post-Vietnam War party. And there are members in the House, as there are in the Democratic base, who are simply antiwar. They don't like it. And so the party has to deal with that tension in the midst of an extraordinary war on terror and both satisfy their constituencies and the members in their own party in Washington who really are against doing these things.

Kirkpatrick: One of the most striking things I found about the debate this week were the absence of two words among the Democrats. "Win" and "victory." These guys have decided we've already lost in Iraq, and I don't think the public is ready to go along with that.

Gigot: I know it'll surprise you, Bret, to find out that the White House actually does polling on Iraq war. And they found support for pulling out was--the high point all along has only been 32%, and in the last couple of weeks it's fallen to 25%. I think that also helped Republicans get the courage of their convictions on Iraq, and it was striking to me the Republican Party, House and Senate, kind of rallied here behind the president. As you know there has been private griping about how this war has been prosecuted.

Stephens: I think that's right. I think that polling reflects the polling we've seen--both the disenchantment with the administration as well as poll you just mentioned--reflects the fact that Americans want a strategy for winning, as Melanie said. Not for pulling out, not for extricating ourselves from problems that I think a majority of Americans understand we can't simply wash our hands of, but for winning. And for a long time there was a sense of drift. The killing of Zarqawi, the creation of--the completion of Maliki's government, a sense of progress in Iraqi politics, and of course Bush's visit to Baghdad are changing that perception.

Gigot: Dan, I want to address the substance of the John Kerry-Carl Levin point. Because they say, Look, we have to remove our troops because the troops are doing more harm than good in Iraq. They're intervening in what has become a civil war, and they're becoming targets, they're not doing any good. What's your response to their argument?

Henninger: Well for one thing, we have had some positive news out of Iraq recently. They have penetrated some of the jihadists around Baghdad, and of course there was the Zarqawi event. But what makes it really difficult for people like Kerry and Feingold is that you have an event like the arrest of these people in Miami plotting to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago. And Bret put his finger on it. The idea of a strategy, a plan. The Democratic proposal is simply a sentiment. There is no strategy or plan for dealing with a post-pullout context. Do you think the American people understand that there is a problem here, and that we would only incentivize al Qaeda if we pulled out, and we have to have a post exit strategy if we go down that route? And the Democrats haven't proposed that yet.

Gigot: Our troops are also there doing some good because they're basically providing some security for the Iraqis and giving them confidence that if they join up on our side of this battle that they won't be killed. We had the foreign minister in here of Iraq, and he basically said to us, Look, we think that the Sunnis in the private debate are the ones who want Americans troops to stay here the most, because they're the ones realize they are most under the threat.

All right, thanks to all of you. We will back after this short break. Still ahead, North Korea an the brink. How should the U.S. respond to Kim Jong Il's nuclear threat. That and our "Hits and Misses" of the week when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: U.S. and South Korean officials warned this week that North Korea appears to be preparing to test a long-range ballistic missile that could reach parts of the United States. Recent satellite images suggest that the missile, which has a firing range of 9,300 miles, has been fueled in a remote eastern region of North Korea, sparking an international debate over how the U.S. should respond.

Melanie, a U.S. defense official said this week that if they do launch the missile, there will be some cost to North Korea, which is a rather ambiguous statement. What is that cost likely to be? What could we possibly do?

Kirkpatrick: I think on a couple of levels there could be a significant cost. First, they could lose the missile because the United States may decide to try to shoot it down with its new missile defense system. Second, I think the test could have the effect of uniting the world in a more concrete way about doing something about North Korea's nuclear program. Already Japan has said it would take severe action if North Korea launched a missile, and we haven't heard from China, which is the big key here. But South Korea, which has pursued a policy of appeasement toward North Korea, is ratcheting up the rhetoric. They are up to "increasingly concerned," which isn't exactly real strong, but they are changing their attitude.

Gigot: But the Pentagon said it had activated the U.S. ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska and California this week, but we also have Aegis cruisers--

Kirkpatrick: That's right.

Gigot: --in the coast--in the Northeast Asian region. Are those equipped to be able to shoot down a missile like this?

Kirkpatrick: They are, but they have to be very perfectly positioned. It's more likely that Aegis cruisers, which carry sensors that can track the missile, would send that information to the interceptors in California or Alaska, and those missiles would be the ones that would be deployed to shoot down the North Korean missile.

Gigot: You as optimistic about this potentially uniting China, South Korea and the rest the world?

Stephens: Well, I'm not sure particularly about South Korea. The Japanese have been serious about the North Korean threat for quite some time, and the Chinese also perhaps increasingly so. The current government in South Korea has always pursued this sort of sunshine attitude towards the North, mainly because they are terrified that the North could disintegrate and they would be left holding the bag for reconstruction. You know, another alternative for dealing with the missile, which was proposed in an op-ed this week by former secretary of defense William Perry, is just to take it out on the site.

Gigot: Democrats for pre-emption. That's an extraordinary thing.

Stephens: Which is something that I think is a very good idea, not least because if we try to knock it down with an antiballistic missile, either an Aegis cruiser or the ground-based ones, there is a chance we could miss. The chance of destroying the site and sending a message to the North Koreans that this behavior is really unacceptable is much greater if we just take it out on the ground.

Henninger: The extraordinary thing about this issue is it brought the idea of antimissile defense back to the surface--an idea that was thought to be laughable. But what we're learning here, I think---this is North Korea after all, the most backwater country in the word, and they have the capability to create one of these missiles. What that tells us is it that missile knowledge and technology is being commoditized. They are not the only ones. Iran has a got a 3,500-kilometer missile now. Egypt, Yemen, India, Pakistan, they are all pursuing missile technology. The answer to that is obviously missile defense.

Kirkpatrick: But the reason they are pursuing the missile technology is because they believe the United States is vulnerable, and that is why I disagree with you, Bret, and I think that the better demonstration effect would be to launch a missile against the North Korean missile, even if it fails, because it would prove to the world that we are developing this technology--all the better if it works, of course--and it would be a deterrent effect on the other countries that want to follow the North Korean example.

Stephens: Whichever way we do it, what we have to do is puncture Kim Jong-Il's strategy. Kim Jong-Il's strategy is something out of "Catch 22." He just wants to remind the rest of the word that he's crazy. The thing about trying to remind the rest of the world that you're crazy is that it actually proves you are quite rational.

Gigot: But if he's crazy, Bret, and we do strike pre-emptively and blow that missile up, we don't know what he is going to do in the South. And there is the danger that an administration has to think about, which is that he could strike back and start a war.

Stephens: Well look, that would be the end of his regime in a number of weeks, and I don't think that's what Kim Jong-Il's strategy is. Kim Jong-Il is creating a crisis so that he can then extract concessions for a crisis that he has manufactured out of thin air. That's the strategy here, and whether we take it out with an ABM missile or we take it out on the ground, we have to puncture that strategy. We have to say, You can't simply manufacture crises and extract concessions from us.

Gigot: All right, Bret, last word. We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses." It's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week. On the environmental front this week, some good news and some bad. Dan?

Henninger: Well, starting with bad. Last week we were talking about astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who wanted us to go to Mars or the moon to escape impending global disaster. That was in Hong Kong. He was in Beijing this week suggesting that global warming might raise the temperature of the earth to 250 degrees centigrade and rain sulfuric acid down on us as though we were Venus.

Gosh, we need some good news. Well, there was a little bit of good news. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is apparently going to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list because there are now 7,000 nesting species all over the United States. There's a small lesson here, and I think that's that if the best minds in science put their efforts to solving plausible problems, they can come up to this worse solutions than nature throws at us.

Gigot: And they'll be nesting in Manhattan soon. All right, thanks, Dan. Next, the Big Apple suffers another blow to its reputation. Melanie?

Kirkpatrick: New York has been called a lot of things. Many of them involving words that can't be uttered on television. But here's a new one. This week a survey declared New York as the most polite city in the entire world. Reader's Digest surveyed cities in 35 countries and decided that New Yorkers are more courteous than the Swiss and the Japanese and anybody else. Now, I have run this by a bunch of New Yorkers and the overwhelming reaction is one of astonishment, and then the second tier is to feel a little bit insulted. This is the city that never sleeps, not the city that wants to be known as the place where people say "please" and "thank you."

Gigot: I almost cut you off.

[laughter]

Finally, Pink Floyd's front man is no fan of this wall. Bret?

Stephens: Yeah, well, Roger fan was never a fan of--Roger Waters was never a fan of walls, as anyone who's followed Pink Floyd knows. And this week he was in Israel to give a concert before 54,000 Israeli fans, but first he paid a visit to Israel's security barrier and scribbled some graffiti on it, calling for it to be torn down. Now, Israel hasn't gotten a lot of high-powered rock-star acts in recent years because of the terrorism problem, which the wall, which he wants brought down, brought down by 90%. So it just shows that as a rock star you never need to grow up and you can eat your cake and have it too.

Gigot: All right, Bret. Thanks. That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, Melanie Kirkpatrick and Bret Stephens. I'm Paul Gigot. Thanks to all of you for watching. And we hope to see you next week.


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