Obama falls short on pledge to curtail earmarks, fiscal hawks say

Fiscal hawks in Congress say President Barack Obama hasn't followed through on a pledge to lower federal spending on local projects.

Earmarks are expected to total nearly $12 billion in fiscal 2010, according to fiscal watchdog groups. While that number is less than the $15 billion total in 2009, lawmakers from both parties said Obama hasn’t kept up the kind of pressure he showed during his first weeks in office or that he promised as a candidate.

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Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said Obama made earmark reform "a very big part of [his] campaign" but still signed this month two massive spending measures that both included approximately $4 billion in earmarks.

Feingold, who broke with his party to oppose both the $447 billion 2010 omnibus spending bill and the $636 billion 2010 Pentagon spending bill, said the president could have used his veto pen to reject the measures and force lawmakers to cut earmark funding.

"We've got to have a fresh start next year, and I've signaled that if they want my vote, they've got to stop just signing onto huge numbers of earmarks," Feingold said.

Obama talked tough about earmarks on the campaign trail.

"Absolutely, we need earmark reform," Obama said in his first presidential debate with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely."

Obama also called for cutting earmarks down to their levels in 1994, when they took up less than $8 billion of the federal discretionary budget.

When he became president in January, Obama called on Congress to keep earmarks out of the $787 billion stimulus, which lawmakers largely did despite its size. And though he signed a $410 billion 2009 omnibus spending bill in March that included $7.7 billion in earmarks, he called soon after for requirements that earmark requests be posted on lawmaker websites so they could be scrutinized. He also called on Congress to subject earmarks going to for-profit companies to competitive bidding, and he pushed lawmakers to debate and vote on spending bills "in an orderly way" to avoid another "last-minute omnibus."

"It's important that we get this done to ensure that the budget process works better, that taxpayers are protected, and that we save billions of dollars that we so desperately need to right our economy and address our fiscal crisis," Obama said in announcing his earmark reform plans in March.

So far, only his pledge to increase disclosure of earmarks has been fully honored by Congress.

Both senators and House members listed their earmark requests on their web sites this year. But even that decision was made without much of Obama's input. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said in January they would require that earmark requests be posted online.

Even with the online postings, the requests aren't easily accessed or sorted, and the earmarks actually awarded are still tucked into the text of legislation that usually isn't released until hours before congressional markups on the bills. That makes it makes it difficult for the public to track earmarks and for lawmakers to hold hearings scrutinizing them, which Obama hoped would happen, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"It's almost impossible to have hearings on them because you don't see the bill until they're voting on it," Ellis said. 


When he outlined his earmark reforms in March, Obama said, "Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer."

Obama's pledge to subject earmarks for private companies to the competitive bidding process has been adopted by the House but not the Senate. Congress also didn't comply with Obama's request for an "orderly" appropriations process, clearing the bulk of the appropriations measures in its final days before the Christmas break, long after the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2010.

Lawmakers who see the earmark process as a waste of taxpayer dollars and the root of potential corruption said Obama and Congress have not instituted real reforms.

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Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said the White House and Democratic leaders use earmarks to "buy off" key votes to pass major legislation. DeMint and other earmark hawks have blasted deals by Senate leaders to give $300 million for disaster aid to Louisiana and $100 million in Medicaid funding to Nebraska in order to win the support of Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on the landmark healthcare reform bill. Though those may not fit Congress's technical definition of earmarks, critics said they accomplish the same sordid goal.

"The overt vote-buying using earmarks is now out of control," DeMint said.

But the president and the Democratic Congress deserve some credit for cutting their number and increasing transparency, earmark watchers said. Obama helped contribute to the projected earmark decline this year by keeping nearly all earmarks out of the stimulus and forcing lawmakers to cut $1.75 billion for new F-22 fighter jets out of a defense authorization bill, said Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste. Before a key Senate vote on the F-22 funding, Obama said he would veto the entire bill if lawmakers didn't strip out the money for seven new jets, which the Pentagon said it didn't need.

Inouye's spokesman, John Bray, noted that earmarks are now subject to "an unprecedented level of transparency." Since Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, earmark requests have been posted online and earmark awards have been listed in the text of spending bills made available to the public at the same time the legislation is considered in public appropriation subcommittee hearings.