- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama’s drive to change Washington’s free-spending ways is running into a buzz saw of opposition from his party, as another top congressional Democrat on Tuesday bucked the president’s plan to curb pork projects.

Mr. Obama also drew criticism from his party for his call to raise taxes on high earners, especially his plan to limit some taxpayers’ itemized deductions for charitable donations.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer became the second leading congressional Democrat in a week to push back against Mr. Obama’s drive to curb member-directed earmarks on spending bills.

Saying he was open to the president’s “suggestions” about how to reform the spending process, the Maryland Democrat told reporters, “I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do. I hope you all got that down.”

His remark echoed a warning from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, that the earmarks process is a congressional prerogative.

Regarding the deduction for charitable donations, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he “would never want to adversely affect anything that is charitable or good.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama plans new rules on earmarks before Congress acts on the proposed $3.5 trillion budget for 2010. “The president is going to draw some very clear lines about what’s going to happen going forward,” Mr. Gibbs said.

If Mr. Obama pushes hard for earmark reform, he faces the first major rift of his administration with leaders of his own party in Congress. The president already faces attacks from Republicans and private watchdog groups about the persistence of earmarks and borrow-and-spend attitude on Capitol Hill.

“This happens with every president and every Congress,” said David E. Williams, vice president of the Washington watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. “President Bush said it. President Clinton said it. But they run into this thing called Congress. I don’t think they understand how powerful Congress is in determining the earmark agenda.”

Mr. Williams predicted that Mr. Obama ultimately would back down and accept “business as usual” on Capitol Hill, though he applauded the president for taking the public stand against earmarks.

Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Reid said that banning earmarks would undermine Congress’ constitutional power to control the government’s purse strings and would cede to the executive branch critical decisions on where federal taxpayer dollars are spent.

The Democrats faced the intraparty clash over congressional earmarks on a day when the Senate turned back a series of Republican moves to hold the line of spending in a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, instead backing an 8 percent spending increase for fiscal 2009.

Watchdog groups and Republicans have called on Mr. Obama to veto the omnibus as a demonstration of fiscal restraint and resolve against pork spending. But White House officials said he will sign the legislation, which the administration views as the final spending bill under President Bush.

The omnibus, which sets funding levels for more than a dozen Cabinet departments for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, would replace a stopgap spending measure that expires Friday.

The president must sign the omnibus or another temporary spending bill by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

“It’s pretty clear that the administration is recommending that we continue the spending binge that has begun here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “We have already in the first year of the new Congress spent more money than the previous seven years combined, spent more money than we spent on Iraq, Afghanistan and the response to Katrina.”

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Obama proposed cutting pork spending to 1994 levels, when Congress slipped 1,318 earmarks costing $7.8 billion into the annual appropriations bills, according to an analysis by Citizens Against Government Waste.

Last year’s spending bills under the Bush administration and a Democrat-led Congress included 11,610 earmarks costing $17.2 billion. The omnibus spending bill contains more than 9,000 member-directed spending items worth $12.8 billion. It increases spending 8 percent over 2008 levels, more than twice the rate of inflation.

The higher spending and plethora of earmarks including such pet projects as $1.9 million for water taxi service at Pleasure Beach, Conn., and more than $950,000 for a “sustainable Las Vegas” program spurred Republican moves to whittle down the bill.

The Senate killed a series of cost-cutting amendments by Republicans, including one by Sen. John McCain of Arizona that would have frozen spending in the current fiscal year at 2008 levels.

“Americans are having to tighten their belts,” Mr. McCain said during debate on the amendment. “No time is more important than now to show the American people that we are ready to tighten our belts.”

Democrats said higher spending was vital to responding to the economic crisis and was needed because the Bush administration had blocked funding for key initiatives. They noted that earmarks account for only about 1 percent of the spending.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said a spending freeze would be the same as “looking backward, going in reverse. It doesn’t make sense.” Mr. Reid and Mr. Hoyer said that specifying individual projects through earmarks was the only way members of Congress could ensure that the money they approve is spent in the way they intended.

“We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats,” Mr. Reid said last week.

Mr. Obama insisted that his $787 billion stimulus package, approved last month, be free of earmarks. But he was far less successful in restraining the practice in the omnibus bill and faces a major battle as he pushes his first full-year budget for fiscal 2010 starting in October.

Critics say the earmark process has become the vehicle for members to deliver billions of dollars annually in pork projects to their districts, ballooning the federal deficit and undermining the budget-writing process. Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain were harshly critical of the practice during last year’s election campaign season.

Mr. Hoyer and other leading Democrats say the explosion of spending earmarks dates to 1995 when the Republicans seized control of Congress, and that they have introduced significant reforms to identify each earmark in spending bills and the member who requested it.

But Mr. Hoyer showed little enthusiasm for a major overhaul of the system.

“We ought to keep that weapon but give confidence to the American people that we are exercising it in a responsible way,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Earmarks, he said, “are only what the Congress adds on [to spending bills] as opposed to what the president earmarks.”

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