The House Republicans’ move to ban their members from taking earmarks this year is raising pressure on the rest of Washington — including President Obama, who has seen himself outflanked on a key measure of fiscal responsibility.
As a senator, Mr. Obama, like most of his colleagues, initially requested earmarks. But by 2008, in the midst of the presidential campaign, he had sworn off them, and even voted for a failed moratorium offered by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate. As president, he has called for Congress to impose greater transparency and to slice the number of earmarks.
But last week, House Republicans went further, imposing their own moratorium on their members, and putting pressure on Senate Republicans, Democrats in both chambers, and back on Mr. Obama himself.
“This is an area that’s really ripe for the president to step up and put some pressure on the Senate,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog group. “Essentially he can say, ‘I’m not going to sign any bill that has earmarks for for-profit companies’ and … make senators say, ‘No, I’m more worried about a few billion dollars in parochial projects than I am in making sure men and women in harm’s way have a fully funded Defense Department.’” Though earmarks make up a small percentage of the government’s overall expenditures, they have become a symbol of wasteful spending and lawmaker excess, particularly in the wake of an ethics probe into possible links between campaign donations and earmarks among several House appropriators.
But even after the House’s crackdown on pork — House Democrats said last week they will no longer allow earmarks to for-profit companies — Mr. Obama’s former colleagues in the Senate have shown little interest in following suit.
Mr. Obama has made clear he recognizes the toxic public perception that accompanies earmarks. His budget director, Peter Orszag, last week urged the Senate “to take similar steps” to match House Democrats’ for-profit ban.
Mr. Orszag also reiterated the White House’s desire that all earmark requests be posted on a single Web site, which House Democrats have already promised to do, saying that the administration plans to publish all earmarks that were included in the fiscal 2009 and 2010 bills on earmarks.gov.
“The administration is committed to rigorous accountability and transparency, and the president has made his reform principles clear — fewer earmarks, more transparency and greater accountability for how tax dollars are spent. That’s why we have made public all the earmark data from fiscal year 2009, and expect to post the 2010 data within a month,” said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. “We are committed to ending the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand.”
Led by Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, House Republicans voted last week to impose a one-year moratorium on earmark requests by their members. Mr. Boehner told his colleagues it was the best way to prove to voters they want to make a clean break with Republicans’ big-spending past.
Senate Republicans are slated to hold a conference this week to talk about what rules to impose on themselves, but both Republicans and Democrats in the upper chamber defend earmarks, saying the Constitution gave Congress the power of the purse.
Both the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week rejected calls to follow House Democrats’ for-profit ban, saying it could rule out seed money for critical defense projects. They point to the Predator unmanned aircraft, which started out as an earmark to a for-profit company.
Earmark foes praise Mr. Obama’s initiatives on transparency, but say it’s not enough.
“No one’s talked about it more than he has,” said Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste. “In terms of doing anything, he really hasn’t done much.”
Against a backdrop of high unemployment and ballooning government spending, Mr. Obama has indeed talked tough on pet projects. After trumpeting last year’s stimulus package as earmark-free, Mr. Obama criticized an omnibus spending bill for 2009 that was overloaded with them. But he ultimately disappointed fiscal hawks by signing the measure, which he justified as the previous year’s business.
To the more recent chagrin of anti-waste crusaders, he ended the year by signing another giant bill for 2010 spending that was packed with pork.
“We would be very, very pleased, and we would support the president if he would just step up and veto a bill laden with wasteful spending, send it back and force them to strip the bill,” Ms. Paige said. “If he was overridden, so what? At least he would have sent a message.”