By Paul Kane and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 12, 2009
President Obama's call to rein in the use of earmarks was met with derision yesterday even from some of his past reformer allies, dealing an early blow to his attempt to change how business is done in Washington.
Obama signed what he called an "imperfect" $410 billion measure to fund most government agencies through September. He used the occasion to criticize the more than 8,500 projects, costing more than $7.7 billion, that lawmakers inserted into the bill, and he declared that "this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand."
But as he vowed to press Congress to shun earmarks in the future, a bipartisan collection of lawmakers said the proposals he offered yesterday would do little to curb the practice and would do nothing to address the appearance of a connection between campaign contributions and spending programs ordered up by lawmakers.
While Obama campaigned on a promise of bringing reform to Washington, the reality remains that most lawmakers believe it is their constitutional prerogative to direct money to their districts. Earmark supporters and opponents alike said Obama's words would carry little weight unless he also vowed to veto critical legislation that is full of spending projects.
"Absent a genuine veto threat, he's just spittin' in the wind," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an earmark opponent who walked through the House chamber yesterday carrying almost 100 pages of approved spending requests from a lobbying firm that is under federal investigation.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who said yesterday that Obama is trying "to fine-tune a fundamentally flawed process," supports legislation that would give the president a limited line-item veto authority, allowing him to cross out specific items and give Congress the chance to override those actions. Feingold is cosponsoring that measure with Obama's 2008 challenger, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the highest-profile opponent of the spending practice. Feingold helped Obama write ethics reforms in 2007.
Representing less than 2 percent of the discretionary federal budget, earmarks have become a lightning rod for critics who say they waste taxpayer money on projects that are requested more to win votes for lawmakers at home than they are for their merits. The connection between earmark recipients and the lobbyists who made campaign donations to lawmakers to secure their passage was central to criminal investigations that landed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) in federal prison.
"The problem is not earmarks, the problem is secrecy which led to abuses in the past," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Obama and congressional Democratic leaders offered a proposal that would require lawmakers to publish on their Web sites all requests they make to the appropriations committees. (Currently, lawmakers are required to detail only requests for funding that is granted.) The earmark lists would be publicly available when subcommittees consider the spending requests under their jurisdiction, weeks earlier than they are now. Agencies would be given 20 days to deem certain proposals inappropriate.
Obama said he would direct agencies to conduct competitive bidding for earmarks targeted to private companies and also threatened to highlight earmarks considered inappropriate by asking Congress to revoke funding for such projects in the future.
"On occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste, fraud and abuse. Projects have been inserted at the eleventh hour, without review, and sometimes without merit, in order to satisfy the political or personal agendas of a given legislator, rather than the public interest," the president said in his speech yesterday.
Those comments were met with strong resistance from some of the most renowned earmark patrons on Capitol Hill, who suggested that the executive branch should not intrude on Congress's constitutional duty to control the treasury's purse strings.
"I would hope that the Obama administration would be sensitive to not tip the balance. The reality is that every dollar in the budget is earmarked. The question is: Who does the earmarking?" said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. Moran suggested that Obama's attempts to trim specific earmarks could be used to publicly shame "any member that doesn't play ball" on his agenda.
Since implementing rules requiring lawmakers to be identified as cosponsors of earmarks, their overall dollar value has dropped slightly over the past two years. Still, with total estimates for 2009 appropriations bills ranging from $11.6 billion to $18 billion, earmark funding requests match or exceed the annual budget of the Interior Department.
Obama backed away from bolder proposals that had been under discussion, including one that would have banned earmarks for private contractors, which was at the root of most recent corruption scandals. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has instead offered legislation that would allow earmarks only for schools, hospitals, municipalities and other state and local authorities.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who as commerce committee chairman is quarterbacking much of Obama's agenda, said of the earmarks: "I think they're completely out of hand, completely out of control. Most of them are driven by lobbyists." But he added that he is dissatisfied with reform proposals from Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress and that he will maintain his prohibition against seeking earmarks.
Earmarking is bipartisan in nature, with tradition dictating that the majority party gets about 60 percent of the total dollar value of the requests. In this year's spending bills, all but four Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate accepted earmarks for their states.
Criticizing the new proposal, Flake said federal agencies are not equipped to thoroughly investigate thousands of earmark requests in the less than three weeks they would be given under Obama's proposal. In addition, earmarks for Pentagon projects are already required to face a competitive bidding process, but Flake said Defense Department officials rarely reject the original designee for the funding. He said those officials fear that they will lose budget money if they cross congressional appropriators, whose power has grown significantly over the past 15 years.
"If they don't fund that earmark request where Congress wants it to go, they might lose funding next year," he said.