President Walks Tightrope on Earmarks

The Democratic leaders were all big guns in appropriations: from left, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Democratic leaders were all big guns in appropriations: from left, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Congressional Democrats pushed back yesterday against suggestions from President Obama that they rein in spending on narrow special interest provisions, defending these "earmarks" as a sliver of the trillions of dollars in federal spending and part of their constitutional duty to their constituents.

Noting Obama's past pursuit of earmarks while he was senator, Democrats set up a squabble with the president over the ingrained culture of the congressional prerogative to direct federal spending as lawmakers see fit. They reacted coolly to proclamations from a top White House aide that Obama would change the "rules" for future spending bills once the current $410 billion catch-all spending bill, a leftover from last fall, clears the Senate later this week.

"I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do. I hope all of you got that down," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters yesterday, saying that Obama could only "suggest" certain reforms for Congress to consider.

The spending dispute came as Obama tried to walk a fine line between bolstering his reformist credentials, including a campaign promise to slash in half the overall number of earmarks, and maintaining his alliance with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. In his speeches Obama regularly takes credit for the passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus act last month without "any earmarks," implicitly suggesting that earmarks are bad legislation and would have hurt the bill.

But the president's message has been muddied by his own mixed record on the subject. For his first three years in the Senate, Obama sought the line-item spending measures, co-sponsoring more than $90 million worth of earmarks in the 2008 appropriations bills, according to a study by the independent Taxpayers for Common Sense. In late 2007, while campaigning for president, Obama announced that he would no longer seek earmarks.

In assembling his Cabinet, Obama chose a half-dozen members of Congress, including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, each of whom brought home earmarks to his or her state. When the earmarks from this week's $410 billion legislation are added to those in a spending bill approved last fall, Obama's team will have co-sponsored more than $280 million in earmarks for the 2009 appropriations measures, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Obama spent about 20 minutes of an hour-long meeting last week with Democratic leaders discussing ways to curb earmarks and make the process more transparent, aides said. Lawmakers yesterday declined to discuss his pending proposal, and White House aides offered no specifics.

"The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday.

But such changes could be hard to come by in a Congress that is led largely by lawmakers who were once members of the vaunted appropriations committees, where earmarks are an ensconced tradition. Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) all used their perches on the appropriations panels to climb the leadership ladder in the Capitol.

The catch-all spending bill currently on the Senate floor has $7.7 billion in earmarks, and there are another $6.6 billion in the funding bills approved in September. Critics say these spending provisions, often included at the request of a single lawmaker, are wasteful and often are accompanied by campaign contributions from earmark beneficiaries and their lobbyists. Reid rejected that suggestion in opposing an amendment that would strip more than $8 million in earmarks to clients of the lobbying firm PMA Group, which is now under federal investigation for donation irregularities.

"Nice try," Reid told reporters.

Reid said earmark reforms, imposed after Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, require lawmakers to sign forms that the spending provisions would not personally benefit their families. The overall number of earmarks, which quadrupled under Republican rule from 1995 to 2007, has fallen in the last two years.

Hoyer said the Constitution gave Congress the duty to direct how funds are spent, noting that Obama previously pursued earmarks because "he believed that there were priorities in Illinois that as a U.S. senator he wanted to address."

"I, philosophically, believe that it would be an undermining of the Article I responsibilities given to the Congress of the United States," Hoyer said, "if it were to abandon its right to add items that it believes are priorities for our country. . . . That's our responsibility, and we ought to keep that responsibility."

Conservatives have sought to drive a wedge between Obama and Democrats on the issue, suggesting that he will eventually force them into meeting his goals of curbing these expenditures. "You can't campaign like he did on earmarks and not have some change," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken opponent of earmarks.

Facing problems with Republicans supportive of earmarks, Coburn and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met defeat yesterday on a series of amendments trying to strip earmarks from the $410 billion spending bill. On McCain's effort to completely zero out earmarks, nine Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in maintaining the earmarks.

Among those supportive of earmarks were eight Republicans who were either members of leadership or ranking minority members of Senate committees.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company