- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

Twice in the last week, President Bush has challenged Democrats to cut pork-barrel spending projects in half this year — but the administration won’t say how much earmark spending happens now, nor what the 50 percent target cut would mean.

As Republicans adjust to being the minority party on Capitol Hill, both Mr. Bush and his fellow party members in Congress are flexing their newfound freedom to take shots from the sidelines without the responsibility of having to back it up by passing the bills or meeting the goals.

For Mr. Bush, that meant making the bold challenge Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden “to cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half,” but not backing it up with any specifics.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said to stay tuned for the details.

“We’re looking right now at the peak levels that we’ve seen occur over the last three years, and what you’ll see in the coming future, particularly the budget itself, is a more clear understanding of what is meant by that phrase,” said Sean Kevelighan, press secretary at the OMB, which handles the White House’s fiscal affairs.

But Democrats found the timing of Mr. Bush’s goal to be curious.

“It is interesting that the administration stayed quiet as the number of earmarks exploded under a Republican Congress and set this target now that Democrats are in control,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who also supports cutting the number of earmarks.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are finding freedom in being in the minority.

At their session-opening press conference, House Republican leaders were asked what alternatives they would offer to the new Democratic leadership’s package of reforms.

“I think we have to see the base of what we’re dealing with, what hand are we dealt,” said Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

It’s a strategy that political observer Charlie Cook called the “just throw rocks” approach in last week’s issue of National Journal.

Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, bristled at the president’s challenge, saying Mr. Bush is just as guilty of spending money to gain politically.

“If we are going to talk about earmarks, then let’s talk about the guy who does the most earmarking. That’s the guy in the big white house at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mr. Obey said.

Mr. Obey said last year the president provided fire-grant money to 30,278 projects, but 62 percent of those grants were in congressional districts represented by Republicans.

“Every single one of those fire grants is the functional equivalent of an earmark,” Mr. Obey said.

Both sides agree that earmarks are in the eye of the beholder, and there are a host of guesses as to how much earmarked spending there is in the budget.

Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes the annual “Pig Book” looking at pork-barrel spending, put the figure at $29 billion in 2006; Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said it was $17 billion; and Bloomberg News service, citing the Congressional Research Service, put the 2006 figure at $71.77 billion, covering 15,832 special projects.

Mr. Obey supports more transparency in earmarks, but cautioned against thinking it will affect the budget deficit. Cutting earmarks doesn’t save any money because earmarks themselves don’t increase the size of a spending bill; rather, they direct money to a specific project.

Mr. Hoyer said Mr. Bush has a chance to prove he is serious with next month’s budget proposal.

“I hope that the president is truly looking to work together to reduce earmarks. An important first step would be for him to put forward an honest and credible budget.”

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