Obama vows earmark reform

March 11, 2009 8:57:47 AM PDT
Acknowledging it's an "imperfect" bill, President Barack Obama said he will accept a $410 billion spending package but insisted it must signal an "end to the old way of doing business." The massive measure funding federal agencies through the fall contains nearly 8,000 pet projects, known as "earmarks" and denounced by critics as pork.

Obama defended earmarks when they're "done right," allowing lawmakers to direct money to worthy projects in their districts - but added they've been abused, and he'll work with Congress to curb them.

"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government," Obama declared. "But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change."

In a sign of his discomfort with the bill, Obama did not sign it in public. And he declined to answer a shouted reporters' question about why.

Running for president, Obama denounced the pet projects as wasteful and open to abuse - and vowed to rein them in.

Explaining his decision, Obama said that future earmarks must have a "legitimate and worthy public purpose", and the any earmark for a private company should be subject to competitive bidding rules. Plus he said he'll "work with Congress" to eliminate any the administration objects to.

But he acknowledged that earmarks have bred "cynicism", and he declared, "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business."

White House officials in recent weeks have dismissed criticism of the earmarks in the bill, saying the legislation was a remnant of last year and that the president planned to turn his attention to future spending instead of looking backward.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama wouldn't be the first president to sign legislation that he viewed as less than ideal. Asked whether Obama had second thoughts about signing the bill, Gibbs' reply was curt: "No."

"This is necessary to continue funding government," Gibbs said. "It represents last year's business. Although it's not perfect, the president will sign the legislation, but demonstrate for all involved rules moving forward that he thinks can make this process work a little bit better."

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel-spending ways. Yet the bill sent from the Democratic-controlled Congress to the White House on Tuesday contained 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

The 1,132-page bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.

Most of the government has been running on a stopgap funding bill set to expire at midnight Wednesday. Refusing to sign the newly completed spending bill would force Congress to pass another bill to keep the lights on come Thursday or else shut down the massive federal government. That is an unlikely possibility for a president who has spent just seven weeks in office.

The $410 billion bill includes significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans.

But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama's spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan, which forecast a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year.

The bill's big increases - among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor - represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.

Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system. The measure also contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.

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