Appropriators, OMB differ on how to cut earmarks

While many agree earmarks should be slashed in this year’s appropriations bills, it may be tough to reconcile the White House’s and various lawmakers’ ideas of how — and how much — discretionary spending should be cut.

According to public statements and letters, the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees have very different goals when it comes to slicing spending. And President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) earmark definition does not sit well with those on Capitol Hill.

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Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he wants earmarks cut by “50 percent relative to the amounts planned in [fiscal year 2006],” according to a “Dear Colleague” letter he sent this February. He would avoid targeting “those accounts which by their nature are project-based,” such as those associated with the Army Corps of Engineers.

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), however, has not committed to meeting Obey’s 50 percent mark.

Instead, Byrd “wants to see a significant reduction in earmarks in the dollar amount and the number,” a Byrd spokesman, Tom Gavin, said. The West Virginia senator has argued for earmarks’ new disclosure standards, which are being instituted this year.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), supports his chairman. “Senator Cochran supports greater transparency, but he has never advocated setting arbitrary limits to Congress’s constitutionally mandated responsibility of monitoring government spending,” one of the senator’s aides said.

Bush appears to have found common ground with both Byrd and Obey on the issue, demanding increased transparency and that the number and amount of earmarks be halved. Yet Democrats have complained that Bush was referring only to earmarks proposed by Congress, not by his administration; the OMB public earmarks database, released this year, would set the baseline for the president’s planned cuts, which may affect the numbers.

“It is a classic Washington procedure,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS). “Everybody is leaving themselves enough wiggle room in case they did not cut earmarks in half, they can say it was not what they promised.”

As one of the more aggressive budget hawks in the District, Ellis’s group is happy that “everybody is talking about fewer” earmarks.

“We would like Congress to cut earmarks in half every year for the next several years,” he said.

Lobbyists who have worked for earmarks say they do not know why Congress has proposed such cuts or how it plans to carry them out.

“Now you have people saying let’s cut the number of the projects in half. But what are you comparing that to? The Highway Bill?” the senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations, Julie Dammann, said. The former chief of staff for Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) has worked for transportation earmarks in the past, but not for this year’s particular appropriations bill.

“I am a little biased here, but that is what members are up there for: to best represent the interests of their district,” Glenn LeMunyon, the president of his own lobbying firm, said. “Is reducing earmarks part of the process in reducing corruption? I don’t see the link there.”

LeMunyon, a former aide to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is lobbying for several transportation earmarks in the Lone Star State. The lobbyist argued that Congress would be handing its right to appropriate discretionary spending to the executive branch.

“They shouldn’t put any limits on themselves at all. It is just silly because it doesn’t save any money,” LeMunyon said.

Byrd has vowed to protect Congress’s use of funds nonetheless, according to statements made in January from the Senate floor.

“But let no person suggest that the Congress errs in using an earmark to designate how the people’s money should be spent,” the chairman said. “It does not belong to the president, or to the unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch. It belongs to the people through their elected representatives in Congress.”

This year, Democrats’ proposed $2.9 trillion budget has about $21 billion more in discretionary spending than the $933 billion OMB set for all appropriations bills. OMB Director Rob Portman has said he would recommend that the president veto any appropriations bill that went over the agency’s spending cap.

Taking note of Congress’s goals on earmark cuts, Ellis and TCS promise to hold those on Capitol Hill to their word.

“We are going to hold them accountable to what they promise,” Ellis said. “They better get on the same page.”