Does Obama Have a Double Standard on Earmarks?

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Getty

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, right, applaud as President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24

On Tuesday evening, when President Barack Obama declared before a joint session of Congress that "we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks," House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, popped out of their seats like jackrabbits for a standing ovation. On Wednesday, those same House Democrats, led by Pelosi, passed a budget with, by some counts, nearly 9,000 earmarks, worth an estimated $7.7 billion.

It may seem like yet another example of Washington hypocrisy, but the Obama Administration insists there is no contradiction between its words and actions. The $410 billion budget in question was passed to keep the government running for the rest of fiscal 2009, since Congress agreed on only three of the 15 appropriations bills last year and the stopgap measure it passed expires on March 6. Despite the fact that congressional Democrats crafted much of the bill after Obama was elected, the White House argues that the pork-laden bill — which increases federal spending across a range of Cabinet departments by 8% — is part of the prior Administration's legacy. "What may be next week's bill is last year's legislation," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. (See the top 10 outrageous earmarks of 2008.)

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week and send it to Obama, who will probably sign it. That way he can turn his attention to what the White House says it is really focused on — Obama's first budget, for fiscal 2010, the outline of which is due to be released on Thursday. "I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities," Obama said on Tuesday night. The anticipated austerity of that budget, which will likely allow President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to lapse and include a road map for health-care reform, will look all the more severe when compared with the bloated 2009 numbers. And while the Obama Administration is turning a blind eye to the 2009 earmarks, White House officials say they fully expect Congress to live up to Obama's campaign pledge of reducing earmarks to below 1994 levels — when the GOP took control of the House — or less than $7.8 billion a year. "They have got to draw a line in the sand, and they didn't do it here," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "They have got to draw it in 2010 or it's irrelevant, whatever the promises are." (The Democratic leadership estimates that there are only $3.8 billion earmarks in the bill, while Ellis' nonpartisan watchdog group includes Army Corps of Engineers projects to reach a total of $7.7 billion — a figure still under Obama's targeted 1994 figure of $7.8 billion.) (See the full text of Obama's first speech before a joint session of Congress.)

Like the lobbying that helps produce them, earmarks were often demonized in the 2008 presidential campaign. In the wake of several high-profile corruption cases over the past few years, from GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff to Representative Duke Cunningham, both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain tried to outdo each other with their pledges to rid Washington of the notorious pet projects that legislators slip into spending bills. Obama, who authored 2007 legislation to overhaul congressional ethics rules governing lobbying and earmarks, runs a real credibility risk when he makes exceptions to his own rules. He was already heavily criticized in the first weeks of his Administration for doing just that with respect to some appointees whose lobbying records technically violated the White House's new strict guidelines. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

In the case of the current budget, Republicans — who themselves account for 40% of the earmark requests — are howling at what they view as Obama's blatant hypocrisy. House minority leader John Boehner and nine other House Republicans sent Pelosi and Obama a letter asking for a freeze in spending levels and for a re-examination of the earmarks in the bill. "There are 9,000 reasons to vote against this spending bill — 9,000 earmarks slipped and crammed into this pork-stuffed nightmare," Representative John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, said on Wednesday in a statement. "Last night, President Obama bragged about this claim that there were no earmarks in his stimulus bill — and yet he's silent today as he prepares to put his signature on 9,000 earmarks."

Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Wednesday defended the 2009 earmarks, arguing that while Democrats have worked to shrink the number of earmarks in recent years, such pet projects do play a vital role in the budget. Who better knows the needs of each district and state, he argued, than the members representing those populations? "Since we've been a country, we have had an obligation as a Congress to help direct spending," Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill. "We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats buried in this town someplace."

Still, Ellis and other observers argue that the fiscal-2009 budget's level of earmarking is too high and that projects such as $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management in Iowa, $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Wyoming, $400,000 to combat bullying in Montana and $2.2 million to study grape genetics in New York are easily ridiculed and embarrassing. And they show the risk of one-party control of both the executive and legislative branches of government — which was amply demonstrated by George W. Bush and congressional Republicans.

"The last eight years, spending got way out of control. The White House couldn't put a check on Congress and the Congress wouldn't put a check on the White House, so everyone spent what they wanted and we ended up with trillion-dollar deficits," says Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who nevertheless voted for the package. "We have a responsibility as Democrats to make sure that we don't do that sort of thing — that when the White House is willing to make tough budgetary choices, that Congress plays a constructive role." Apparently, that new responsible role doesn't officially start until fiscal 2010.

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