No Unanimity Over Earmarks

Posted March 11, 2009 at 6:38pm

Senate Democrats offered just lukewarm support Wednesday for President Barack Obama and House Democratic leaders’ earmark reform proposals, despite weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations by party leaders to reach a consensus.

Obama unveiled his plan Wednesday morning just moments after House Democratic leaders sent out a coordinating press release and in conjunction with his signing of a $410 billion omnibus spending bill that contains thousands of earmarks. Senate leaders, meanwhile, were mum.

While Democrats sought to downplay any intraparty divisions, they acknowledged that the lack of aggressive support for Obama’s plan from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and outright criticism from reformers such as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) mirror the difficulties Republicans have had with doing away with earmarking. Plus, it underscored the nonpartisan nature of the controversial subject.

“It’s a long-standing dispute between Congress and the White House,— one veteran Democratic aide said, adding that “this little thing called the Constitution gives Congress control of the purse strings— and the authority to direct funding to specific projects.

House Democratic aides said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders worked closely with the White House to develop Obama’s proposal.

“We have been talking regularly with the White House prior to today’s announcement by the president and the House leadership,— a House Democratic leadership aide said. “All along, we have made it clear that we support responsible reform and that’s why the president praised the House proposal.—

The bulk of the proposals in the House reforms have either already been put in place or were expected to be used during the coming appropriations process by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). But Pelosi included new initiatives to provide the executive branch greater review of earmarks sought by lawmakers, as well as a requirement that earmarks for for-profit businesses undergo a competitive bidding process.

Obama highlighted those proposals in his Wednesday announcement and specifically endorsed the House plan. “Just this morning, the House released a set of recommendations for reform that hold great promise, and I congratulate them on that. Now, I am calling on Congress to enact these reforms as the appropriations process moves forward this year. Neither I nor the American people will accept anything less,— Obama said.

In a statement following Obama’s announcement, Reid praised the efforts that the House and Senate have already taken to cut down on earmarks, but he was clearly cool to the overall package of reforms and did not explicitly endorse the actions called for by Pelosi and Obama.

“We appreciate the President’s leadership in ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and with accountability. We have implemented reforms that go a long way toward achieving the accountability and transparency we all agree is necessary, and we look forward to working with President Obama and our colleagues in Congress to explore additional reforms,— Reid said.

According to House and Senate Democratic leadership aides, Reid and other Senate leaders have balked at the new reforms, and have thus far been unwilling to endorse them. While Reid has been willing to endorse basic transparency proposals such as publishing earmark requests on the Web and giving the public more time to review those projects, he has thus far been unwilling to back proposals like those that “Old Bull— lawmakers view as infringing on Congress’ constitutional authority to dole out federal funds.

Inouye, in a release announcing a set of transparency reforms that he and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have been putting in place, alluded to Obama’s proposals, saying he opposes giving the executive branch greater oversight of the earmarking process.

While not directly referencing the House plan, Inouye said: “Others have suggested that our hard-working and well-meaning federal employees should be the ones to make all these decisions. I could not disagree more. It is in the nature of a bureaucracy to be both risk averse and to support the status quo.—

Senate Democratic aides sought to downplay the significance of difference between the Senate, the House and Obama.

One Senate Democratic source noted that at the beginning of the intraparty talks several weeks ago, White House officials and even some House Democrats were pushing for an aggressive stance on earmarks similar to one that has been staked out by conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would all but end the process.

“There were elements in the White House that just wanted to come out and hammer earmarks,— this source said, arguing that Reid and other Senate leaders pushed Obama to take a more moderate approach while also acknowledging the efforts Congress has to address the issue.

Indeed, in his speech Obama repeatedly hailed reforms ushered through during the last Congress by Reid and Pelosi. While he endorsed the continued use of some earmarks, he said it should be done so under new controls.

“We started here, and now we’re here,— the source said while acknowledging “there’s still a ways to go— before the Senate, House and White House have an agreement.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, questioned whether it made sense to force every for-profit earmark to go out for bid. Still, Murtha, whose own use of earmarks has come into question, doesn’t plan to protest the new rules.

“Whatever the hell it is, we’ll work our way through it,— he said.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), another appropriator, said he didn’t mind the new restrictions agreed to by Democratic leaders, as long as the bureaucrats overseeing the bidding process are “honest and objective.— But Moran said he wanted to make sure that the balance of power does not shift too much to the executive.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Obama’s top supporters and a vocal critic of earmarks, did not release a statement on the issue, while Feingold, who has worked on earmark reforms with Obama in the past, said they were inadequate.

“While I applaud President Obama’s commitment to crack down on this abusive process, we need stronger measures to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely,— Feingold said.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.