Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Members of Congress quietly have been calling federal agencies demanding their pet projects still be funded weeks after they swore off pork-barrel spending, the Bush administration says.

In response, administration officials have signaled they ignore many of those requests — a move that thrills fiscal conservatives who have called on the president to take that step. But it’s likely to irk congressional spending committees because it may threaten 95 percent of pork-spending projects, or “earmarks.”

“Some of your offices have begun to receive requests from some congressional offices asking that the department continue to fund programs or activities that received earmarked funds in prior years,” the Department of Energy’s chief of staff, Jeffrey Kupfer, wrote in a Feb. 2 internal memo. A check by The Washington Times of other agencies turned up similar reports of phone calls — from congressional offices of both parties.

But now, Mr. Kupfer wrote, they will no longer feel bound by earmarks and will follow through only on those “with meritorious proposals or programs that effectively support and advance the department’s missions and objectives.”

Even stronger assurances have been made privately by top administration officials to Republican lawmakers who have been pleading with President Bush for the changes, congressional aides said.

“We may have totally changed the paradigm on how the federal government spends money,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who has led the congressional fight on the issue. “For years, the risk has been on the agency side — if they don’t comply they’re going to lose their budget. Now the risks shift to the member.”

Earmarks have become the hottest issue in spending, thanks to big projects such as the one critics labeled the $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. Estimates for annual earmark spending run from $17 billion to more than $71 billion.

The administration’s recent action is aimed at earmarks slipped into the reports that accompany spending bills, which the Congressional Research Service says account for more than 95 percent of pork projects.

Congress votes on the bills but not the reports. Yet most agencies afforded the reports the force of law — until now.

Last week, Mr. Bush declared open war on the report earmarks, bringing a foot-high stack of the add-ons with him to a speech in Manassas.

“Let that sun shine in. It’s called transparency,” Mr. Bush said. “If the members of Congress think it’s a good idea, then they ought to vote it up or down and then send it to my desk so I know full well that there’s been full scrutiny in Congress.”

The administration’s case was bolstered by a federal appeals court ruling last month that the reports do not have the force of law.

The first test will come soon on the Defense and Homeland Security spending bills, which were the only two spending bills passed last year. Each has earmarks in the bills and in the conference report.

A Homeland Security spokesman said the department was still in the process of gathering information on what earmark items are included, while a Defense spokesman was unable to find out the status of his department’s earmarks.

Lawmakers are waiting to see whether Mr. Bush follows through.

“Killing an earmark is like trying to kill a snake — you never know if it’s dead or not. But I think we’ve got it surrounded,” Mr. DeMint said.

Mr. Bush has also challenged Congress to cut earmarks in half, but he can’t say what that target number is because disagreement exists on what an earmark is.

Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has directed agencies and departments to catalog all earmark requests, and defined them as spending requests from Congress that circumvent the normal competitive process.

Cutting earmarks will not necessarily cut spending, because the money would still flow to the agency, but it would be spent on the administration’s priorities.

Some departments said they have never felt bound by items tucked into reports.

“Traditionally, the Education Department doesn’t comply with earmarks that are part of report language,” said Rebecca Neale, a department spokeswoman.

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