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Obama bans bill pork, warns of deficits
Warning of $1 trillion deficits “for years to come,” President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats on Tuesday vowed to eschew pork-barrel spending in the giant economic stimulus bill, a rare move in a place where large spending bills are routinely larded up with earmarks.
“What I’m saying is, we’re not having earmarks in the recovery package, period,” Mr. Obama told reporters, calling his election a mandate to force the federal government to change its budgeting and spending, slash broken programs and prevent pork.
Still, the president-elect warned that the deficit could top $1 trillion this year and “for years to come.” He said he will have to prove he’s serious by making tough choices on what to cut.
His vow to forgo earmarks applies only to the stimulus spending bill, but the pledge puts Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats in a good position to outdo Republicans on fiscal responsibility.
Under President Bush and the Republican-led Congress, earmarks ballooned to peak at nearly 14,000 in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. Under Mr. Bush and a Democrat-controlled Congress, the deficit hit a record $455 billion in fiscal 2008.
Republicans said Mr. Obama should go further still and forgo earmarks in all annual spending bills passed by Congress. Republicans also challenged the president-elect to adopt Mr. Bush’s policy that called for the administration to spend only on earmarks that had the force of law, rather than on the majority of such projects, which are tucked into reports.
Mr. Obama didn’t address that policy, and his transition team didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Speaking to reporters at his transition office after meeting with his budget staff, Mr. Obama said the stimulus bill would be a chance for Democrats to prove they can set a “new, higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight.”
Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats say they are looking at a roughly $1 trillion stimulus measure that would include some tax breaks and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on infrastructure.
In 2005, the last time Congress passed a highway bill, which is somewhat comparable to the stimulus spending bill in that it contains thousands of projects, Republicans allowed members of both parties to load up the bill with pet projects for their districts.
If Mr. Obama has his way, that will not be allowed this time — though earmarks may have been redundant anyway, given that state and local officials already have submitted the projects likely to be included in the bill.
Still, Democrats said they already have made big strides during their two years in control of Congress and said they will continue that legacy with the stimulus bill.
“Let’s remember that it was Democrats that brought transparency to earmarks and led the effort to pass the most sweeping ethics legislation since Watergate. We will continue to demand transparency when it comes to congressional spending,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “There will be no earmarks in this bill.”
The chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees on Tuesday said they will restrict earmarks in the regular annual spending bills, but did not call for eliminating the projects altogether.
They said earmark requests will have to be published on members’ congressional Web sites along with a defense of why they are good uses of taxpayer money, and in future years earmarks will be limited to 1 percent of discretionary spending.
On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers will introduce an even stricter set of limits on earmarks. The group includes senators well known for their efforts to reform spending, such as Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said Republicans have adopted their own earmark limits unilaterally and urged Democrats to follow suit.
“There should be no more taxpayer-funded ‘monuments-to-me,’ in which members earmark taxpayer funds for projects named after themselves. There should be no more ‘airdropping,’ in which taxpayer-funded earmarks are dropped into House-Senate conference reports at the last possible minute to avoid public scrutiny and debate,” he said.
Democrats and some Republicans have resisted a moratorium in the past, and congressional Republicans predicted that Mr. Obama will have a fight on his hands if he wants to expand the earmark ban to all spending.
In talking with reporters, Mr. Obama also defended his reported choice of Leon Panetta to be Central Intelligence Agency director, saying that as a chief of staff to President Clinton, Mr. Panetta was versed on intelligence. Mr. Obama also praised Mr. Panetta as a manager who could help look forward.
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