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Reform Lite: Obama Goes Soft On Pork

The old bulls won.

Pulled between his campaign rhetoric and his own party’s congressional barons, President Barack Obama largely sided with his Hill allies in unveiling an earmark proposal Wednesday that shies away from any strict crackdown on the practice.

Obama proposed further transparency for the spending goodies prized by many members of Congress – but stopped far short of the kind of serious limits reformers wanted.

“Rather than trying to fine tune a fundamentally flawed process, we should take aggressive steps to prevent unauthorized earmarks,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), a leading anti-earmark critic on the Hill.

Feingold’s GOP partner – and Obama’s former presidential rival – went further.

“The President’s rhetoric is impressive, but his statement affirms we will continue to do business as usual in Washington. . .” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has led the fight against earmarks. “The President could have resolved this issue in one statement – no more unauthorized pork barrel projects – and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed.”

Steve Ellis, head of the Taxpayers for Common Sense, put it more simply: “Some of his campaign promises have met congressional realities and he didn’t overcome them.”

Obama, in brief remarks to reporters and a bank of cameras in the Old Executive Office Building, sent an unmistakable message down Pennsylvania Avenue that he understands their need for earmark spending.

“I recognize that Congress has the power of the purse,” he said in brief remarks in the Old Executive Office Building that were unmistakably aimed down Pennsylvania Avenue. “As a former senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. And they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities.” 

At times, he sounded more like a defender of the old ways than a critic.

“Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that's why I've opposed their outright elimination,” Obama said. “There are times where earmarks may be good on their own, but in the context of a tight budget might not be our highest priority.” 

As that relates to spendthrift members of Congress, Obama said earmarks should now be placed on congressional websites and open to public hearings.

Further, he proposed that any earmark for a for-profit company face the same competitive bidding process as others seeking federal contracts.
And he said his White House will examine earmarks and, if they find them objectionable, seek to eliminate them – in concert with Congress.

Gone from the president’s remarks was his campaign pledge to go through the budget “line-by-line” and a promise, still on the White House website, to “slash earmarks to no greater than 1994 levels.”

And for now he’s signing into law – sometime today and likely out of public view – a catch-all $410 billion spending bill held over from last year that includes almost 8,000 earmarks

Top members of the Democratic congressional leadership as well as their aides have made plain in recent weeks, that they had little appetite for making major changes to a process that allows many of their members to return millions to their home states and districts for politically popular projects.

And Obama, needing these allies for other major issues, worked in tandem with them to propose reforms that could be stomached by even the most pork-hungry.

The House Democratic leadership, in coordination with the White House, issued its own set of recommendations just minutes before Obama faced the cameras.

Obama said those measures “hold great promise.”

The stps largely mirrored the president’s proposal, but with the additional recommendation that total funding for earmarks be cut to half of 2006 levels and represent no more than 1% of the discretionary spending budget.

Congressional Democratic aides breathed a quiet sigh of relief with the president’s announcement, saying privately that they were glad the president didn’t pick this fight.

The reformers recognized as much, too, noting that Obama avoided addressing the central manner by which the spending projects avoid scrutiny – by bypassing the congressional committees that authorized spending.

“The president only supports earmarks if they are ‘worthy,’” said Feingold. “He says we can ensure they are worthy by disclosing them on members’ websites, opening them to review at public hearings, presumably by the Appropriations Committee, where members will have to justify their expense to taxpayers. But we already have such a system, namely the authorizing process where the committee with expertise reviews proposed spending in their jurisdiction. Earmarking circumvents that vetting process and ducks the tough questions taxpayers deserve to have asked.”