Obama redirects $470M in 'idle' earmark funds to highway projects

The Obama administration said Friday that it would use $470 million in unused money earmarked by members of previous Congresses to pay for new transportation projects.

The White House said the money comes from appropriations bills that were passed by lawmakers from 2003 to 2006. Since taking over the House in 2010, Republicans have banned earmarks, and have touted the fact that the recently approved $105 billion transportation bill did not include any.

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But President Obama said Friday that he was going to put the money that was already appropriated to use as a part of his "We can't wait" campaign against congressional inaction.

“My administration will continue to do everything we can to put Americans back to work,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. “We’re not going to let politics stand between construction workers and good jobs repairing our roads and bridges.” 

The initiative continues Obama's effort to cast congressional Republicans as an obstacle to his efforts to reduce unemployment. But Republicans are likely to point to the spending as evidence of Obama's profligacy. 

Obama had originally called for Congress to pass a six-year, $556 billion transportation bill, but lawmakers balked as the price tag. He also included $50 billion for transportation spending in a $447 billion "jobs act" he proposed to Congress last fall, but the measure was voted down by Congress.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the administration was "freeing up" the unused earmarks "so states can get down to the business of moving transportation projects forward and putting our friends and neighbors back to work.”

"We understand the political climate we're in ... but we still need to put people back to work."

LaHood said the administration identified the unused earmark money while it was "waiting for Congress to pass a transportation bill.

"We were looking for money wherever we could find it," he said.

LaHood said states would have to identify projects for the money that was earmarked for them by Oct. 1 or that they would lose the funding. 

The administration used a similar tactic when several states turned down money in the 2009 economic stimulus bill for high-speed railways Obama had proposed.

LaHood said Friday he did not expect governors would reject the federal money.

"I would doubt any if any governor who wants to put friends and neighbors back to work would turn this down," he said. "We'll leave that up to them."

—This story was posted at 11:57 a.m. and updated at 1:02 p.m.