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Obama Signs Spending Bill but Criticizes Earmarks

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Published: March 11, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In the morning, President Obama stepped before cameras on Wednesday to call on Congress to impose new rules curbing pet spending projects. In the afternoon, he signed a $410 billion package jammed with pet spending projects, this time with no cameras to record the moment.
And on Capitol Hill, where the appetite for such projects, known as earmarks, remains largely unabated, House Democratic leaders smiled as they watched Mr. Obama on television. Just a half-hour earlier, marking their own turf, they had pre-empted him by putting in place essentially the very rules he was now calling on them to adopt.
It was a day when rhetoric met reality and politicians on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue scrambled to get on the safe side of a volatile issue, while still advancing favorite projects. Republicans who passed record numbers of earmarks when they were in charge chided Democrats for passing their own. The president and fellow Democrats who had promised they would curb the practice when they took charge promised they really would next time.
“The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” Mr. Obama told reporters before signing the bill in private. “So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand.”
To minimize the political risk from enacting yet another large spending bill with earmarks, House Democrats adopted new rules limiting them in the future. From now on, they decreed, earmarks will be subject to a 20-day review by the relevant executive-branch agency. And any earmark for a private, for-profit company will be subject to competitive bidding.
The new rules, along with other regulations enacted by majority Democrats over the last two years, could force more transparency and scrutiny over legislative spending requests. But Republicans predicted that little would change, and independent watchdog groups complained that the rules should have gone further.
For that matter, Senate Democrats made clear that they were not necessarily signing on to the new rules. Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Democrats had already “regained control of the process” and defended earmarks as a legitimate way to make policy.
“The problem is not earmarks,” Mr. Inouye said. “The problem is secrecy which led to abuses in the past.”
Even after adopting the rules, his House counterpart seemed unenthusiastic about the battle against earmarks. Approached by reporters in a Capitol corridor, Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, referred to his written statements and angrily dismissed questions.
“I am tired of talking about doughnut holes,” he said, noting that the vast bulk of the bill did not go to earmarks. “Let me know when you want to get back to substance.”
Then he retreated into his office and slammed the door behind him.
To be sure, the number of earmarks has fallen since Democrats took charge, and they now must be posted on Web sites in advance for the public to examine. Democrats agreed in January to limit earmark spending to 50 percent of 2006 levels and no more than 1 percent of the discretionary budget.
But that depends on the way earmarks are counted. More than $12.8 billion, or 3 percent, of the money in the latest bill went to earmarks requested by lawmakers and by President George W. Bush’s White House. Lawmakers, however, often count only certain earmarks they have more control over, and in this case that came to about 1 percent of the spending bill.
Republicans rushed to condemn what Senator John McCain of Arizona, a longtime opponent of earmarks, called “business as usual in Washington.”
Representative Jeff Flake, another Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama had signaled that he would not stop the abuse. “Given what we have seen so far, I doubt the president is going to put his foot down,” Mr. Flake said.
Mr. Obama returned fire at Republicans, branding them hypocrites since they sought an estimated 40 percent of the earmarks in the bill. He said he found it ironic “that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own and will tout them in their own states and districts.”
For Mr. Obama, the issue has been awkward and unwelcome. He promised on the campaign trail to slash earmarks to the level of 1994, before Republicans captured control of Congress, and he promised that “any nonemergency bill” would be posted on the White House Web site for five days before he signed it.
With so many other priorities, Mr. Obama opted to avoid a confrontation with Congress over earmarks and signed the spending bill the day he received it, calling it “imperfect” but saying he did not want to get “bogged down” over the issue.
Aides declared it “last year’s business” because it will pay for government operations for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, while Mr. Bush was still in office. They said Mr. Obama signed it right away because stopgap spending authorization was set to run out at midnight, although Congress could have extended that.
Asked why Mr. Obama did not have a public signing ceremony, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters at a briefing, “No reason other than the fact that some things are signed in public and some aren’t.” Even White House staff members in the room laughed at that.
Mr. Obama expressed sympathy with lawmakers on earmarks, saying, “Individual members of Congress understand their districts best, and they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities.”
Aides distributed a statement by Norman J. Ornstein, a longtime Congressional scholar, who praised the new earmark rules as “a solid, practical and comprehensive set of new steps.”
But critics said executive agencies now called on to review earmarks might be hesitant to cross lawmakers who control their purse strings. And they said lawmakers could get around competitive bidding by writing such specific requirements that only one firm could qualify.
“He promised a bang, and he came out with a whimper,” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent group that tracks Congressional spending, said of the president. “He could have really changed the special- interest, status quo spending that we have here in Washington, but instead he really sang off the sheet of music that Congress gave him.”

version of this article appeared in print on March 12, 2009, on page A18 of the New York edition

Ron Nixon contributed reporting.


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