Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On Earmarks, Bush Challenges Dem Congress

Congressional Democratic leaders have spoken in encouraging terms about earmark reform, even if they have not entirely lived up to those words so far. When forced to complete the FY07 appropriations cycle at a spending level that didn't allow much earmarking, they limited earmarks. (Although contrary to their rhetoric, they did not eliminate them).

Now as they prepare for the 2008 fiscal year, it seems that a return to business as usual is likely. However, with the support of some leaders in the House and Senate (people like Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn and John McCain), the Bush administration seems ready to push for dramatic reductions in the power of Congress to earmark funds.

Here's the latest:

Members of Congress quietly have been calling federal agencies demanding their pet projects still be funded weeks after they swore off pork-barrel spending, the Bush administration says.

In response, administration officials have signaled they ignore many of those requests -- a move that thrills fiscal conservatives who have called on the president to take that step. But it's likely to irk congressional spending committees because it may threaten 95 percent of pork-spending projects, or "earmarks..."

Even stronger assurances have been made privately by top administration officials to Republican lawmakers who have been pleading with President Bush for the changes, congressional aides said.

"We may have totally changed the paradigm on how the federal government spends money," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who has led the congressional fight on the issue. "For years, the risk has been on the agency side -- if they don't comply they're going to lose their budget. Now the risks shift to the member..."

Last week, Mr. Bush declared open war on the report earmarks, bringing a foot-high stack of the add-ons with him to a speech in Manassas.

"Let that sun shine in. It's called transparency," Mr. Bush said. "If the members of Congress think it's a good idea, then they ought to vote it up or down and then send it to my desk so I know full well that there's been full scrutiny in Congress..."

Lawmakers are waiting to see whether Mr. Bush follows through.

"Killing an earmark is like trying to kill a snake -- you never know if it's dead or not. But I think we've got it surrounded," Mr. DeMint said.

Mr. Bush has also challenged Congress to cut earmarks in half, but he can't say what that target number is because disagreement exists on what an earmark is.

Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has directed agencies and departments to catalog all earmark requests, and defined them as spending requests from Congress that circumvent the normal competitive process...

This is a welcome change. However, it will cause a major fight between Congress and the administration, if Bush follows through. Republican lawmakers who support the President on this can expect retribution - but it won't be the sort that attracts major headlines. Rather, expect appropriators to fight this one quietly, but vociferously.

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