- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

President Bush’s budget office yesterday called on Congress to spend no more than $9.5 billion on pork-barrel projects next year, a monumental task for a legislative body known for spending tens of billions on pet programs annually.

The Office of Management and Budget set $19 billion as the starting point for Mr. Bush’s State of the Union call on lawmakers to cut earmarks, or pork, by 50 percent in 2008 fiscal year appropriations.

This “establishes a clear and transparent benchmark from which to judge the president’s goal of cutting the number and cost of earmarks by at least half,” OMB Director Rob Portman said. “We will now be working with Congress to achieve this goal.”

Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit advocacy group that publishes an annual report of congressional pork-barrel projects, said $19 billion was a good starting point.

“If they cut it to $9.5 billion, I think everybody will he happy — except for a few members of Congress,” said the group’s president, Thomas A. Schatz. “We’d like to see the number at zero, but as long as less money is spent on earmarks, we’re happy.”

A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and a longtime foe of pork, said that while the senator applauds the president’s drive to cut pork, an ethics law governing the earmarks process also is needed.

“A reform process is not in place,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said. “The senator believes the entire earmark system as it is, is totally corrupt.” Mr. Hart added he thinks reducing earmarks by $9.5 billion in 2008 is attainable.

“I think cutting earmarks by 99 percent is totally realistic,” he said. “Ronald Reagan one year signed a budget with only 13 or so earmarks, and our country operated fine.”

The $19 billion number was the amount OMB calculated Congress spent on earmarks in 2005. The year was chosen because 2005 represents a typical year in regard to pork-barrel spending, OMB officials said.

The amount of earmarks has nearly tripled in the past decade, OMB said.

The OMB defines earmarks as “funds provided by Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction in bill or report language circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process of the executive branch, or specifies the location or recipient for funding.”

Identifying earmarks is far from an exact science. The nonprofit CAGW calculated $27.3 billion for fiscal year 2005 — or $8.3 billion more than the OMB’s number — although the group says it uses different criteria for identifying pork than does the OMB.

In 2006, CAGW identified $29 billion in earmarks, while Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said it was $17 billion. The Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service said the amount that year totaled more than $67 billion.

The practice of calculating earmarks has caused a stir in recent months. The CRS, which had tracked earmarks during the 12 years of the Republican congressional majority, has discontinued the practice since Democrats took power in January, riling lawmakers suspicious of the timing.

Leading Democrats say they did not influence the CRS to drop its role as an earmark scorekeeper.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wasn’t aware of the research service’s change in policy until this week, spokesman Tom Gavin said last week.

CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan said he adopted the new policy because OMB was taking a greater role in monitoring earmarks.

But some members of Congress have complained that OMB’s database is woefully inadequate because it includes earmarks for only 2005.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, says more transparency is needed about earmarks in pending legislation before they become law, DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said.

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