- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

President Obama signed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill Wednesday afternoon after promising that he and congressional Democrats won’t have a repeat of the runaway pork-barrel spending that has come to define the measure.

In laying out his own earmark rules Mr. Obama said it was unfair to tarnish the bill for what he said was just 1 percent of its spending dedicated to pet projects, and defended the right of Congress to dedicate money where they want. But he said this must be “a departure point.”

“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 it an “imperfect” bill.

It’s yet 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 do away with earmarks entirely, such as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Mr. Obama’s opponent in last year’s presidential election.

House Democratic leaders followed suit by announcing new rules for vetting lawmakers’ earmarks, including each requested project undergo review by the appropriate agency.



House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the added scrutiny will ensure that the earmark is eligible to receive funds and meets goals established in law.

Furthermore, the House will require any earmark directing taxpayer dollars to a for-profit entity will be required to go through a competitive bidding process.

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

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

Still, debate over earmarks reinforces Republican criticism that the bill is more of Democrats’ “borrow-and-spend” governing. They say the federal spending spree — a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, a $787 billion economic stimulus and a $410 billion omnibus, all on top of Mr. Obama’s proposed $3.55 trillion budget for fiscal 2010 — is bankrupting the country.

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 that a list of earmarks and their sponsors accompany spending bills.

But the omnibus spending bill, which funds most federal agencies until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, has been so tarnished by earmarks and increased spending levels that Mr. Obama was not planning to sign the measure in public.

That contrasts sharply with the signing ceremony Mr. Obama held last month in Denver for the $787 billion economic stimulus spending bill.

The president did not answer a question shouted to him by a reporter about why he wouldn’t sign this bill in public.

Mr. Obama said under his new earmark rules that members of Congress must post their earmark requests on their Web sites, that earmarks that go to private entities must be competitively bid and that his administration will work to kill any earmarks they deem not to have merit.

He repeatedly painted earmarks as mainly a Republican problem, pointing to the practice that reached its peak when Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

The new House rules would establish the following process for members to direct funding to specific projects:

Step 1: Lawmakers must post all earmark requests online, including information on the proposed recipient, the address of the recipient, the amount of the request and an explanation of the request, including purpose, and why it is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds.

Step 2: Members must certify that neither they nor their spouse has a financial interest in the project.

Step 3: The appropriate agency will be given 20 days to check that the proposed earmark is eligible for funding and meets goals established in law.

Step 4: Each bill must be accompanied by a list identifying each earmark that it includes and which member requested it.

Step 5: Total funding for nonproject-based earmarks will be limited to 50 percent of the 2006 levels and no more than 1 percent of the total discretionary budget.

Step 6: Members are able to offer floor amendments on earmarks under the rules of the House and Senate. More than 70 such votes were taken on individual earmarks in 2007 in the House.

Step 7: Earmarks directed to for-profit entities will undergo a competitive bidding process.

Step 8: In the event that any “clunkers” are discovered after enactment, under the rescission process on the books, the Congress can consider proposals by the president to rescind funding.

Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it “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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