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Hoyer pushes back on earmarks

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer Tuesday became the second leading congressional Democrat in a week to push back against President 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. I hope you all got that down."

His comments came a day after White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama was preparing new rules on earmarks as Congress puts the final touches on a omnibus spending bill for the remainder of the current fiscal year that includes thousands of targeted spending items inserted by lawmakers.

"The president is going to draw some very clear lines about what's going to happen going forward," Mr. Gibbs said. "The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently."

But Mr. Hoyer's comments come a week after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also strongly defended the practice as a congressional prerogative. If Mr. Obama pushes hard for earmark reform, he could face the first major rift of his administration with leaders of his own party in Congress.

Both 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 in 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 $410 billion omnibus spending bill now being considered in the Senate and could face a major battle as he pushes his first full-year budget for the fiscal year starting in October.

Mr. Hoyer said banning earmarks would undermine Congress' constitutional power to control the government's purse strings. Otherwise, he said, Congress would be ceding to the executive branch the critical decisions on where federal taxpayer dollars are spent.

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. Both Mr. Obama and Republican president candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona were harshly critical of the practice during last year's election campaign.

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