Battle Afoot Over Earmark Cut

Posted January 23, 2009 at 6:05pm

Tucked deep inside President Barack Obama’s new White House Web site last week was a little-noticed campaign pledge that is already causing heartburn on Capitol Hill: a commitment to slash earmarks back to 1994 levels, a nearly 75 percent cut from 2006.

Several appropriators said they were unaware of the pledge — initially made during the presidential campaign when Obama’s then-rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was promising to eliminate all earmark spending outright.

Obama’s plan is far more aggressive than the one announced earlier this year by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to cut earmarks in half.

With all the attention on the $825 billion economic stimulus package that will be earmark-free at Obama’s request, Democrats and Republicans have been quietly negotiating an omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal 2009 that will include thousands of earmarks, with House Democrats hoping to pass both bills before the mid-February Presidents Day recess.

Democratic appropriators say there will be a modest additional cut in earmarks in the omnibus and have worked closely with the Obama administration on it, but the cut won’t come close to the 1994 level.

Obey and Inouye have promised that they will limit earmarks in future years to 1 percent of the discretionary budget, but that would still exceed $10 billion, well over Obama’s commitment, which is to cut earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year.

“We’re not going to base our decisions on arbitrary numbers that haven’t been adjusted for inflation,” a House Democratic aide said.

Appropriators on both sides of Capitol Hill generally resist the idea of slashing earmarks that dramatically, arguing that it is always in the White House’s interest to eliminate them because it gives the administration the power to decide how to spend the money.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she has more confidence that the new administration will make sure Louisiana gets the funding that it needs than she was under Bush, but she is not keen on cutting earmarks.

“I think an arbitrary line like that is going to be hard to meet,” she said.

“For Senators or House Members to give up their right to fund worthy projects, to relinquish that to unelected bureaucrats who have no accountability, who have never visited their states, is ludicrous,” she said.

“I think what we’re doing is a reasonable measure,” added Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. “We’re cutting earmarks in half. That’s about as neat and clean as it gets.”

With sentiments like that, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the only appropriator who does not request earmarks, predicted Obama will ultimately cave.

Kirk said there are times when a president will “state a position knowing they are going to get rolled. … The warthogs on the Hill will roll him.”

But not everyone is resisting the idea of a return to 1994 levels.

“Frankly, one of the reasons I was so supportive of earmarks over the last eight years was it seemed to be the only way to get projects funded,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), an appropriator who has been among the strongest backers of earmarks. “If we can trust that the administration is going to do the right thing then there is much less need for earmarks and it takes some of the pressure off.”

Obey refused to discuss Obama’s call to slash earmarks.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say,” he said. “You guys can continue to be obsessed with 1 percent of the budget, I’ll worry about the other 99 percent.”

It’s not clear how important Obama considers his commitment to meeting those 1994 levels, although he has gone out of his way to vow that there will be no earmarks in the stimulus package. The item was listed near the bottom of the “ethics” agenda subsection of the White House Web site last week and also was listed on Obama’s transition Web site and in his campaign literature, but the item does not say when he would cut earmarks to $7.8 billion a year.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the leading earmark foe in the House, said he was unaware of Obama’s pledge but said it could quickly become one of his first broken promises when the omnibus comes up.

He sent a letter to Obama on Friday appealing to him to keep earmarks out of the omnibus, not just the stimulus package.

“It sends a conflicting message to taxpayers to say that earmarks in the stimulus are unacceptable, but earmarks in the omnibus are okay,” Flake said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, isn’t expecting Obama to slash earmarks to 1994 levels right out of the gate on the omnibus but said Obama could eventually get there if he is serious about doing so.

“If he really wants to achieve this, President Obama is going to have to draw a line in the sand, and that means vetoing legislation,” Ellis said. “At some point he is going to have to rattle Congress’ cage.”