Pesky earmarks still in eye of budget storm
‘Member projects’ are a tiny part of the federal budget, but they’re a problem for Obama.
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The issue is a tough one for the Obama White House. The president campaigned to drop earmarks back to their 1994 level – the year before Republicans took control of the House and the practice of earmarking soared.
The president barred earmarks from last month’s $787 billion stimulus package, but advisers say the fiscal year 2009 omnibus bill, including earmarks, is old business.
“This is last year’s business. We just want to move on. Let’s get this bill done, get it into law and move forward,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. The president will sign the bill, despite earmarks, he said.
In a sign of how controversial the practice has become, the Senate Appropriations panel last week removed the name of then-Senator Obama from sponsorship of a $7.7 million earmark for vocational training for native Americans in the omnibus bill. The inclusion of Obama on the list had been a mistake, said John Bray, deputy communications director for the committee.
At the time Obama requested the funds, the request did not identify particular recipients – a defining feature of earmarks.
“It identified a set of criteria and awarded funding to any eligible entity,” he said in a statement. “The record will be corrected to reflect these facts.”
“The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently,” he said.
“President Obama has a chance to take one of the biggest steps toward real earmark reform in years,” Senator DeMint wrote in his blog on Monday.
Senators have traditionally been the most avid supporters of earmarking, which they see as a congressional prerogative. Led by longtime appropriator Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, senators make the case that the executive branch should not have the only say in where federal dollars are spent, since the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse.
Budget analysts say the issue has been blown all out of proportion to the importance of earmarking in the federal budget.
“It’s closer to a drop in the bucket, but because politicians devote so much time to it – and the media does – it’s become a laugh line on late night television,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington.
“I’d much rather have people focus on entitlement reform. Until we do, the American public will discredit the [budget] process,” she says.