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Obama outlines his goals for earmark reform

The president, who is about to sign a bill containing earmarks, says legislators should post the spending provisions on their websites and that each earmark should be scrutinized at a public hearing.

March 12, 2009|James Oliphant and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — President Obama railed against pork barrel projects on Wednesday. Then he signed a massive spending bill stuffed with them.

Still, Obama pledged to reform the earmarking process, unveiling a plan that he said was designed to make sure all projects that benefit from the practice of earmarking have a "legitimate" purpose.

Obama said he was signing the $410-billion spending bill, which funds the operations of all but three Cabinet departments, to keep the federal government running. The bill had won final approval Tuesday, just before a stopgap funding measure was due to expire.

Republicans had urged the president to veto the bill to take a stand against earmarking -- the means by which members of Congress direct taxpayer money to a particular project or business.

"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it is necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do," Obama said. And he didn't want Congress "bogged down" in a discussion about earmarks rather than working on more pressing problems.

"But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change," Obama said.

The president said that all future earmarks should have a "legitimate and worthy public purpose." He said that members of Congress who propose them should post them on their websites for public inspection, and that they should be discussed at public hearings.

Obama also said that earmarks benefiting for-profit companies should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. He called such earmarks "the single most corrupting element of this practice."

House Democrats replied with a reform package of their own, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) saying that federal agencies would now be asked to review the earmarks that members propose.

To Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, the pledges sounded like the saying, "Give me sobriety, but not yet." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's challenger in the presidential race and the most high-profile critic of earmarking, said Obama should have threatened to veto any bill that contained irresponsible earmarks.

"The president could have resolved this issue in one statement -- no more unauthorized pork-barrel projects -- and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them," said McCain, who has taken to Twittering about earmarks. "This is an opportunity missed."

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group, agreed, saying, "There just wasn't clarity and action in what [Obama] said." The president should have called for an end to all earmarks for private companies, she said.

The spending bill Obama signed Wednesday is packed with such earmarks, including 13 that benefit clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm in Washington under federal investigation for alleged campaign-finance abuses.

Efforts by Republicans this week to strip those earmarks failed. "Pardon us if we note the irony of signing a bill into law that contains close to 9,000 earmarks on the very day that the president pushes alleged earmark reform," said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "It's like washing down a doughnut with a Slim Fast shake."

Obama's call for transparency should have included the creation of a central clearinghouse where all earmarks could be tracked, Alexander said, instead of relying on individual members to post their own.

At the same time, Alexander said the White House could only do so much to reform the process. Under the Constitution, Obama does not have the power to veto individual spending line-items; the president can only veto an entire bill.

"In fairness to the president, Congress needs to take action," Alexander said. "This is a congressionally created problem." It is also a bipartisan one; about 40% of the earmarks in this spending bill were fashioned by Republicans.

Much of the current furor over the practice -- which accounts for a fraction of overall federal spending -- can be traced to the widely maligned "bridge to nowhere" pushed by former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Boehner said in an interview Tuesday that congressional leaders should agree on a moratorium on earmarks for the rest of the year. But Obama, who as a senator had requested earmarks to benefit his home state of Illinois, on Wednesday defended some as worthwhile and accused Republicans of playing politics on the issue.

"Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that's why I have opposed their outright elimination," the president said. "I also find it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own -- and will tout them in their own states and districts."

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cparsons@tribune.com

joliphant@tribune.com

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