- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday joined House Democrats in promising to reel in pork-barrel spending, then defied his party’s Capitol Hill leaders by saying he’d ignore parts of the $410 billion catchall spending bill in his first signing statement, a technique that he criticized the Bush administration for using to sidestep congressional authority.

Mr. Obama signed the spending bill in private, calling it last year’s business, but publicly declared that from now on, he will hold Congress to a higher standard on spending and will insist on reducing pet projects known as earmarks, which came to define the massive spending bill in public opinion.

“This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability,” Mr. Obama said, calling the spending bill “imperfect.”

His coordinated his anti-pork efforts with House Democrats, who announced their own rules to cut back on earmarks, but their joint efforts exposed a rift with senators, who stopped short of endorsing the proposed measures.

In a written statement, the top four Senate Democrats responded to the president’s call for more earmark reform by highlighting past reforms and making vague promises to do more in the future, while the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee said they will adopt their own rules to weed out bad projects.

“We appreciate the president’s leadership in ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and with accountability. We have implemented reforms that go a long way toward achieving the accountability and transparency we all agree is necessary, and we look forward to working with President Obama and our colleagues in Congress to explore additional reforms,” the statement from Democratic leaders said.

The president, who earlier this week criticized President Bush for abusing signing statements, issued the first one of his administration Wednesday as he signed the $410 billion bill. In the statement, Mr. Obama carved out five areas in which he said the bill restricted the president’s authority under the Constitution to negotiate on international affairs, interfered with his ability to control his staff and required him to get pre-approval from Congress.

Mr. Obama defended his first signing statement, saying, “It is a legitimate constitutional function” to raise objections based on the Constitution. He said Mr. Bush erred by issuing statements objecting to matters simply on the basis of policy.

Still, Mr. Obama issued his first signing statement earlier in his term than his predecessor. Mr. Bush’s first statement, on March 20, 2001, was an innocuous thanks to Congress, while his first one questioning constitutionality was issued on May 24, 2001, more than four months into his term.

Together with the $787 billion stimulus spending bill that Mr. Obama signed last month, he has now signed nearly $1.2 trillion in spending and tax cuts into law in his little more than 50 days in office. In addition, he has proposed a $3.6 trillion budget for next year.

The president didn’t answer a reporter’s shouted question early in the day about why he was signing the bill in private.

“Some things are signed in public, and some aren’t,” his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters later.

Republicans are determined to revive their image as the party of fiscal restraint, and they hammered the bill’s nearly 9,000 earmarks costing $12.8 billion. About 40 percent of the earmarks, however, were requested by Republicans.

House Republican leaders scoffed at the earmark reform proposal, saying a veto of the pork-laden omnibus would have sent a stronger message.

“Absent a veto threat, I don’t think [the president] is going to be able to take on the old bulls in the Senate,” said anti-earmark crusader Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Obama said it was unfair to tarnish the measure for spending what he said was just 1 percent on pet projects, and he defended the right of Congress to dedicate money where it wants.

But he said the omnibus, which funds most federal agencies until the end of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, must be “a departure point” that isn’t repeated.

It’s another example of Mr. Obama trying to split the difference between the extremes of those who say Congress should have free rein to direct spending and those who want to eliminate earmarks entirely, such as Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who opposed him in last year’s presidential election.

House leaders said they would embrace much of what Mr. Obama requested, including giving the administration 20 days to review earmarks before they are included in bills to make sure they pass muster. They also agreed with Mr. Obama to subject to competitive bidding any earmarks that would go to for-profit companies.

“With the inclusion of these new reforms, we will ensure accountability for congressional earmarks at every step of the process,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

The Democrats first enacted rules to make the earmark process more transparent when the party assumed majorities in both chambers in 2007. Those reforms required a list of earmarks and their sponsors accompany spending bills, and Democrats have cut earmarks to below their high-water mark under Republicans.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, said that under the new rules, the spending process “will be far more open and transparent than during the ‘good old days’ when a committee chairman would simply pick up the phone and instruct government agencies to fund member requests behind the scenes with no transparency, no fingerprints, and no public accountability.”

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