- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Democrats may have declared a one-year moratorium on pet projects treasured by members of Congress, but the move will hardly stop horse trading in Washington or moves by lawmakers to try to steer taxpayer money back home.

Nor will it touch billions of dollars in already budgeted Pentagon earmarks, which go to everything from research into better body armor for overseas troops to finding bone-marrow matches to treat leukemia patients.

The temporary ban on earmarks — footnotes in spending bills that lawmakers use to deliver federal bacon to their states — has been greeted with applause by budget hawks and is seen as a savvy political move. But many in the rank and file are not happy.

“I’ve had my share of calls, and they weren’t to wish me a Merry Christmas,” said incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat.

Earmarks have exploded in number and cost in recent years, and Congress got a black eye when former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for earmarking projects to defense contractors.

Mr. Obey and his Senate counterpart, Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, have promised to eliminate lawmakers’ pet projects as they fashion a catchall spending bill to close out about $463 billion in unfinished budget business — dumped on them by outgoing Republicans.

Mr. Byrd and Mr. Obey have announced a plan to fund most domestic agency accounts at 2006 levels, with some increases to avoid layoffs of federal employees and for politically sensitive programs such as veterans’ medical treatment.

Some of the money to pay for such add-ons will come from accounts used by lawmakers to send earmarks back to their districts and states. But Congress is unlikely to drain all the money from such accounts — which run the gamut from agricultural research and flood control to grants to local police and fire departments.

That means projects will go ahead in many instances, but it will be up to Bush administration officials, spread throughout dozens of federal agencies, to determine who gets the money. Instead of looking to bills passed by Congress — or rosters of projects listed in accompanying reports — agency chiefs will have enormous discretion to award projects.

In response, lawmakers are likely to pick up the phone and write letters as they lobby agency officials to go ahead with their earmarks.

“We’re going to continue to make the strongest case we can to whomever we need to fund projects we believe have a broad, positive impact on the district and are supported by the communities in which they exist,” said Betsy Hawkings, chief of staff to Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.

“Even if things aren’t always earmarked in report language or in a bill, sometimes there’s conversations that occur between members … and agencies,” said Christin Baker, spokeswoman for the White House budget office.

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