- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pork-barrel spending may be on its last legs in the House as Republicans and Democrats join in a bidding war to outdo each other over fighting abusive earmark spending.

House Democrats, who control the chamber, said Wednesday they’ll impose a ban on earmarks where the government sends money to for-profit corporations, while House Republicans are slated to vote Thursday on whether to impose a complete one-year moratorium on themselves - and increase pressure on Democrats to follow suit.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told his colleagues in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that the moratorium vote will test whether Republicans are ready to prove to voters that they stand for change.

“We’re going to have to make a decision,” Mr. Boehner said in the meeting, according to a senior Republican aide. “Are we really willing to put it all on the line to win this thing?”

Even as the House bidding war heats up, though, the Senate has signaled it’s not going to play. The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee said they’ll keep doing earmarks. Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, called House Democrats’ ban on for-profit companies “quizzical.”

Earmarks are the items members of Congress insert into bills or reports directing money to their pet projects. Though less than 1 percent of total federal spending, the earmark process has become a symbol of congressional waste and of the ballooning federal deficit.

Rep. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has for years led lonely fights on the House floor to strip earmarks from bills, said he expects the moratorium to pass after several important members of the Appropriations Committee told him they’ll back a halt.

If Republicans adopt a moratorium, he said, Democrats will have to follow.

“I can’t believe that the House Democrats could go forward, if we announce a complete ban, they go forward with earmarks,” he said.

Mr. Flake said after reports of earmark-linked corruption, and with spending sky-high, his colleagues had to act as they prepare to face voters in November.

“The country, right, left and center, is sick and tired of wasteful spending. Just the overall climate was enough to push it over the edge,” he said.

Mr. Boehner’s move won backing from no less an earmark fan than former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican and a staunch defender of Congress’ power of the purse, who nonetheless said Mr. Boehner is “showing some real leadership on an issue the Republicans have to deal with and get behind.”

Mr. DeLay said Congress will never get rid of earmarks entirely and that when done right earmarking is actually a good thing, but said the practice has run off the rails.

“It got out of hand, that’s for sure, and that’s what generated the controversy. But if Boehner can pull the conference together and they deal with earmarks in a responsible way, then that gets an issue that divides the party off the table,” he said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Boehner has never taken earmarks, and other House Republican leaders have since sworn off taking them.

House Democrats have not followed them, though Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported this week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has floated the idea of Democrats enacting a moratorium.

Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said Republicans made overtures to Mrs. Pelosi last year to rewrite the rules.

“Last year the leader and [I] attempted to muster support for her, the speaker, joining us in a bipartisan effort to set out some rules so that the American people could have confidence in the way their taxpayer dollars were spent. She refused to even meet with us on that,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know whether she can match them this time if they enact a moratorium. “I’m not sure the speaker is willing to do what it is we think is the right thing on this.”

A spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi didn’t return a message for comment. The speaker’s office did issue a statement praising her partys ban on earmarks to for-profit corporations.

Since taking control of Congress in 2007, Democrats have taken steps to bring transparency to earmarks. Both House and Senate members are required to post all of their earmark requests online, and spending subcommittee chairmen are supposed to list in reports any earmarks that are included.

The new rules House Democrats are imposing will apply mainly to Defense Department spending. Instead of directing earmarks to a specific company, the Pentagon would put out projects for a competitive bid.

Democrats said the change, if it had been in place last year, would have affected about 1,000 earmarks, or roughly 10 percent.

But Mr. Inouye, chairman of the Senate spending committee, said the ban could have prevented important projects from ever getting off the ground, such as the Predator unmanned drone aircraft, which was originally an earmark to a for-profit company and has since become a critical weapon in the war on terror.

Mr. Inouye said efforts to boost transparency, including having senators list their requests on their Web sites and affirming that neither they nor their families would benefit from earmarks, have cleaned up the process, and no for-profit ban is needed.

The Senate, with members up for election every six years, has always seemed more reluctant to ban earmark spending than the House. A 2008 effort by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to impose a moratorium failed by a 71-29 vote, though Mr. McCain was joined by Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

House Democrats said they’re taking steps to make sure critical national security projects such as the Predator would get funded even with their ban.

Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat and the new chairman of the military spending subcommittee, said a special Pentagon incubator fund will be created for those projects.

“We want to protect our right to help innovative companies,” he said.

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