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Obama's 'change' theme tested again

The president may have a fight on his hands in taking on his latest targets: earmarks and lobbyists.

March 01, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama said that in overhauling healthcare he would make the negotiations public, and even invite C-SPAN to air the talks on television.

Yet in recent months, lobbyists and health insurance company representatives have been meeting behind closed doors -- with the White House's knowledge -- in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to debate options for a new health system.

As a candidate, Obama pledged to cut "earmarks" for lawmakers' pet projects to pre-1994 levels. But the president soon may sign a bill laced with more than 8,500 earmarks.

Transforming Washington's political culture is proving tougher than Obama may have envisioned.

"I don't think anyone who is familiar with the way Washington works was under any illusions about the ease in doing this," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's very different to make promises on the campaign stump than it is putting together an administration and running a government. . . . I don't think it's a given that it's possible to change the culture of Washington."

Obama's proposals keep coming.

On Thursday, the president laid out initiatives targeting earmarks and lobbyists. Obama's budget outline contains plans for websites that would show how much lobbyists are spending in pursuit of government contracts and which members of Congress are asking for earmarks.

Obama's commitment to an ethical tone and more transparent style is facing near-daily tests.

The latest involves earmarks. Last week, the House passed a $410-billion spending bill that watchdog groups say contains $7.7 billion worth of earmarks. A group of 10 Republican House members sent the president a letter Friday reminding him of his campaign promises and asking him to veto the bill, if it is passed by the Senate.

The bill, the lawmakers wrote, "openly defies your commendable objectives of fiscal transparency and accountability. It contains nearly 9,000 'airdropped' earmarks, most of which were not even considered in committee let alone on the House floor as is routine."

As the bill was being considered, the White House raised objections to the abundance of earmarks but gave no indication it planned a veto, a congressional official said Friday. The White House declined to comment about whether Obama would veto the legislation.

Scrubbing the budget of earmarks is certain to face congressional resistance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remains "a bit skeptical" of Obama's interest in clamping down on earmarks, a Reid aide said Friday.

In a recent interview with reporters, Reid seemed to be sticking up for earmarks. "We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats," he said.

Because earmarks are popular in Congress, the president "will have a fight on his hands" in trying to root them out, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

For Obama, the multitude of Washington lobbyists poses another ongoing problem.

Just after taking office, Obama announced a new ethics policy that would restrict lobbyists who join the government from working on issues that were a focus of their lobbying work.

In his budget release last week, he took another step: The president said he would set up a centralized database so that the public could monitor how much money federal contractors spend on lobbying. Currently, such reports are divided among separate websites that track government contracts and lobbyist spending.

Watchdog groups praised the effort, though they added that more needed to be done. One possibility would be to clearly publicize both the campaign contributions and lobbying expenses of companies that bid on federal contracts, they said.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama reiterated the need for Congress to overcome resistance from deep-pocket lobbies.

"I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight," Obama said. "My message to them is this: So am I."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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