In the morning, President Obama stepped before cameras and called on Congress to impose new curbs on 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.
WASHINGTON — In the morning, President Obama stepped before cameras and called on Congress to impose new curbs on 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.
On Capitol Hill, where the appetite for such projects, known as earmarks, remains largely unabated, House Democratic leaders smiled as they watched Obama on television. A half-hour earlier, marking their own turf, they had pre-empted him by putting in place essentially the very rules he wanted them to adopt.
Rhetoric met reality as politicians scrambled to be 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.
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“The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” Obama said 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 another large spending bill with earmarks, House Democrats adopted new rules targeting them in the future. From now on, they decreed, earmarks will be subject to a 20-day review period by the relevant executive-branch agency. And any earmark for a private, for-profit company would be subject to competitive bidding.
The new rules, along with other regulations enacted by majority Democrats over the past two years, could force more transparency and scrutiny over legislative spending requests. But Republicans predicted little would change, and independent watchdog groups complained the new rules should have gone further.
For that matter, Senate Democrats made clear they were not necessarily signing onto the new rules. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Democrats already had “regained control of the process” and defended earmarks as a legitimate way to make policy. “The problem is not earmarks,” 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 in a Capitol corridor, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., 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.” He then 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. About $12 billion, or 3 percent, of the money in the latest bill went to earmarks requested by lawmakers and by George W. Bush’s White House. Lawmakers, however, often count only certain earmarks they have more control over. In this case, that came to about 1 percent of the spending bill.
Republicans rushed to condemn what Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a longtime opponent of earmarks, called “business as usual in Washington.” Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Obama signaled he would not stop the abuse. “Given what we have seen so far,” Flake said, “I doubt the president is going to put his foot down.”
Obama returned fire at Republicans, branding them hypocrites because they sought an estimated 40 percent of earmarks in the bill. “I also find 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,” he said.
For 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 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, Obama opted to avoid a confrontation with Congress over earmarks and signed the spending bill the same 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 rest of the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, while Bush was still in office.
They said Obama signed it right away because stopgap spending authorization was set to run out at midnight, although Congress could have extended that.
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 Ornstein, a 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 may be hesitant to cross lawmakers who control their purse strings. And they said lawmakers can 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.”
New York Times reporter Ron Nixon contributed to this report.