- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

President Bush yesterday challenged Democrats to live up to their pledge to cut pork-barrel spending, using his weekly radio address to suggest they join forces to crack down on earmarks in spending bills.

Mr. Bush called it a “top priority” for Congress when lawmakers return next year.

The administration has been trying to find an issue where it has common ground with Democrats, and spending is an obvious area, particularly given Democrats’ campaign and post-campaign pledges to cut waste.

“That was one of the clear messages American voters sent in the midterm elections,” Mr. Bush said. “And one of the best ways we can impose more discipline on federal spending is by addressing the problem of earmarks.”

Mr. Bush’s own party was unable to rein in earmarks during its time in control of Congress, and many Republican leaders in Congress staunchly defend the current system.

Earmarks are line-items written into bills or congressional reports that direct money to specific projects, often at the whim of a single member of Congress and without any formal review or chance for a vote on the House or Senate floor.

Opponents refer to them as pork-barrel spending, and the Congressional Research Service says they ballooned after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995.

For example, earmarks in the spending bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments grew from 253 in fiscal 1994 to 1,722 in fiscal 2005. The dollar value nearly doubled, as did the percentage of the total bill dedicated to earmarks: from 11.5 percent in 1994 to 21.8 percent in 2005.

Sensing the potency of the issue, Democrats have pledged to keep earmarks out of spending when they complete the fiscal 2007 appropriations process and to prevent earmarks in future spending bills until they pass a reform package that makes earmarks more transparent.

It would be a major step if Mr. Bush and Democrats in Congress could come to an agreement.

While applauding the president’s challenge, Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Bush could do more to cut down on earmarks by refusing to follow through on those included in reports, which do not have the force of law.

“By rejecting this secret spending for politicians’ pet projects, federal agencies could focus these funds on their core missions and serve true national priorities,” Mr. DeMint said.

Among the options being floated on Capitol Hill are requiring every earmark to be listed along with its sponsor and some specific information about the provision, preventing earmarks that would benefit a lawmaker or those tied to him or her and allowing an up-or-down vote to strip individual earmarks from bills.

Mr. Bush said earmarks create the chance for wasteful spending “such as a swimming pool or a teapot museum.” According to Citizens Against Government Waste, the Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C., received $500,000 in federal spending during the last fiscal year.

But some members of Congress, including top Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees, argue members of Congress know their districts better than federal bureaucrats, so they are better at directing spending.

And while Mr. Bush points to questionable spending, defenders point to the Iraq Study Group, which was the result of a $1 million earmark.

The House passed an earmark-reform proposal this year, but the Senate did not.

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