President Obama vowed Wednesday to reduce pork barrel projects in federal spending, even as he planned to sign a budget bill containing billions of dollars for lawmakers' pet projects.
Obama said all future projects known as "earmarks" must have a "legitimate and worthy public purpose" and be subject to competitive bidding procedures, saying special deals for specific companies have been "the single most corrupting element of this practice."
Obama spoke as he prepared to sign a $410 billion appropriations bill to keep the government running through September. The bill contains 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee. The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense put the total at $7.7 billion.
"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government," Obama said. "But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change."
Obama added that most of the bill's spending — "99%" — is for "needed investments" to help the nation's economy.
Obama said his administration has made progress on earmark reform, noting there were none of them in the $787 billion stimulus bill he signed. He also said that when "done right," earmarks can "direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts."
Yet they can also be abused, Obama said. He said earmark requests should be posted on congressional members' websites and be scrutinized in public hearings.
"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."
Obama's reforms build on changes initiated by Republicans in 2006 and strengthened by Democrats two years ago. In new steps — outlined in concert with House Democratic leaders Wednesday morning — the House Appropriations Committee will submit every earmark to the appropriate executive branch agency for a review.
Obama also promised to resurrect the long-defunct process by which the president proposes to cut spending from bills that he has signed into law. Under this so-called rescissions process, the White House sends Congress a roster of cuts for its consideration. Congress is free to ignore the cuts, but both Obama and senior members like Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., say they want to use it to clean out bad earmarks that make it through the process.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., pressed Obama to veto the bill in part because of the earmarks. As a candidate, Obama pledged to change the earmark process and reduce spending on them.
McCain, whom Obama defeated in last year's presidential race, called the president's rhetoric "excellent as usual," but the "proposals were business as usual." McCain said Obama should simply block all earmarks, period.
"He has to veto appropriations bill that have pork barrel projects that are not authorized," McCain said in a telephone interview. "It's that simple."
McCain pushed back at Obama's statement that earmarks are only 1% of the bill, saying it contains $8 billion in unnecessary federal projects. "He either does not understand the size of the problem or he doesn't want to address it," McCain said. "Americans are satisfied with $8 billion for projects like pig odor research?"
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of pet-project spending in Congress, gave Obama credit for focusing on earmarks to private companies, but said lawmakers can easily bypass the restriction by not naming the company in the request. He also questioned whether federal agencies are equipped to review thousands of earmark requests, as called for in the plan.
"They simply don't have the time or the resources," Flake said. "The bottom line is, as much as I'd like the president to do more, it's really our problem. Some of us are hoping for a little adult supervision."
"He's not going to get Congress' attention unless he makes a genuine threat to veto legislation," Flake added. "He didn't even come close to that."
Supporters defend earmarks as worthwhile because lawmakers are more aware of the needs of their communities than employees in federal departments. Opponents, including McCain, say the spending should be subject to the same oversight and scrutiny as other federal spending.
According to an analysis of the bill by Taxpayers for Common Sense, California received the most in earmarks at $569 million. Alaska did the best per capita: Its $143 million works out to about $210 per person. And Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was the most prolific, securing $123 million for his home state.
Earmarks come from members of both parties, and in some cases, Democrats and Republicans support the same project. Florida Reps. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and John Mica, a Republican, included $13 million for commuter rail for their state, for instance. Iowa Sens. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican, together requested $3.8 million for new buses in their state.
Beyond the earmarks controversy, the 1,132-page 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 bill's big increases — among them a 14% boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10% 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% increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10% 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.
Contributing: Associated Press