- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

Newly emboldened earmark foes are calling on President Obama to back up his opposition to pork-barrel spending with action.

Mr. Obama, who stopped requesting earmarks during his final year in the Senate, has used his bully pulpit to call for reform of the process by which lawmakers direct federal funding to pet projects. He even made it the sole focus of a recent weekly address, identifying earmarks as a possible area of bipartisan cooperation with the GOP.

But the president has signed billions of the sometimes-controversial projects into law during his first two years in office - even though he has later expressed regret for doing so.

“If you want to know how you really change the practice, it’s for a president to say, ‘I’m simply going to veto bills that have these projects in them,’ ” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a leading anti-pork crusader. “He has to know what a stain there is around the country for this kind of politics, for earmarks in general, and if he were to take a firm stand that would be huge for him.”

Indeed, with a near-record federal deficit and an economy that’s still struggling to recover, public pressure to control government spending is immense and congressional Republicans have latched onto an earmark moratorium as a part of the answer. But members of Congress are also intent on protecting what they see as their constitutional prerogative to appropriate federal dollars, and those competing tensions have set up one of the key showdowns on Capitol Hill.

“The president really is the lynchpin in all of this,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “He can talk to the Senate Democrats and say, ‘Hey, it’s not like I’m telling you to do something I didn’t do when I was in the Senate.’ So he has a bit of the moral high ground there.”

Mr. Ellis noted that Mr. Obama has already had some luck “saber rattling” with Congress over a defense authorization bill last summer that included $1.8 billion for new F-22 fighter jets. The Senate eventually voted to cut funding for the program after Mr. Obama made the first veto threat of his presidency.

The president has been less interested in standing up to lawmakers when it comes to pork barrel spending projects - despite vowing to crack down on them during his 2008 campaign. Soon after taking office in March 2009, he criticized, but signed, a $410 billion omnibus spending bill loaded with $7.7 billion in earmarks, including $200,000 for a California tattoo removal program.

Mr. Obama justified his signature by pointing out that the legislation was left over from the previous year, declaring however that it “must mark an end to the old way of doing business.” Nine months later, he signed a second omnibus bill totaling $447 billion, with nearly $4 billion in earmarks.

Both House Republicans, who will take control of the chamber in January, and their Senate counterparts have agreed to voluntarily ban earmarks, which account for less than 1 percent of federal spending but have become symbols of government waste and even corruption. In particular, the Senate GOP moratorium was a major coup for earmark hawks, who welcomed a change of heart by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a longtime defender of directing federal dollars to projects back home.

With their new majority, House Republicans could effectively block requests by House Democrats. But Democrats still control the Senate and, along with a few Republican outliers who are bucking their caucus on the pork moratorium, such as Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have vigorously resisted the anti-earmark wave.

That leaves a bipartisan band of agitators, led by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, looking to force fellow lawmakers into line with a binding moratorium that, as a change to Senate rules, would require 67 votes and is unlikely to pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an avowed earmarker, has agreed to allow a vote on the proposal even as he warned it would lead to a power grab by the executive branch.

“I think I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what’s important to Nevada and not what’s important to some bureaucrat with green eyeshades,” Mr. Reid, of Nevada, told reporters last week in a routine defense of the practice.

But Mr. Obama seems to have recommitted himself to a tough public stance on pork since his party’s “shellacking” at the polls earlier this month.

In a postelection press conference, he appeared to regret having signed bills piled high with earmarks, saying the process “isn’t what the American people really want to see when it comes to making tough decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent” and that he hopes to work with Republicans on reform.

He told Americans in a weekly address that “we can’t afford” earmarks amid staggering deficits, and even put out a statement in response to Mr. McConnell’s reversal in a bid to stay out front on the issue.

The real test, however, will come if and when Congress sends Mr. Obama another pork-laden bill. That may not happen until next year, as Mr. McConnell has vowed to block consideration of an omnibus spending bill during the so-called “lame duck” session of Congress.

Asked last week by a reporter whether the president would use his veto pen to enforce his views on earmarks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ducked the question, saying the administration would have to “evaluate a piece of legislation for what is and is not” in the bill.

Mr. Flake, who thought Mr. Obama “would take a firmer stand initially,” said it would be a mistake for the president to sign another omnibus riddled with pet projects.

“I think people would say that’s just more of the same,” said Mr. Flake, who described the fight over pork as “a new ball game” come January, when the new Congress is sworn in.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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