March 10, 2009 -- President Obama acknowledged today that he signed an "imperfect omnibus bill" but told Congress to clean up its act when it comes to pork-barrel projects that are inserted into spending bills without going through the traditional appropriations process, better known as earmarks.
The president signed the $410 billion spending bill, which contains roughly 9,000 earmarks totaling nearly $8 billion, behind closed doors and away from the glare of the cameras. But before he did, he came before myriad cameras to insist he viewed the bill "as a departure point for more far-reaching change."
"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it is necessary for the ongoing functions of government. But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change," President Obama said in a speech on earmark reform.
President Obama added: "Now, let me be clear: Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that's why I have opposed their outright elimination. 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.
"But the fact is that on occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste, fraud and abuse. Projects have been inserted at the 11th hour, without review, and sometimes without merit, in order to satisfy the political or personal agendas of a given legislator, rather than the public interest," the president added.
Obama said lawmakers should post earmark requests on their Web sites and open them to public scrutiny at hearings; and subject earmarks for for-profit private companies to a competitive bidding process, just like other federal contracts. He pledged to work with congressional leaders to remove future earmarks that don't serve any legitimate public purpose.
Obama Backtracking on Promises?
One year ago this week, then-Sen. Obama swooped in off the campaign trail -- along with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- to vote for a bill that would have banned earmarks for 2009.
"We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or nonprofit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it," the then-junior senator said of the amendment that overwhelmingly failed.
The president criticized earmarks during his campaign and vowed to reduce them.
"I've pledged to slash earmarks by more than half when I am president of the United States," he said in Green Bay, Wis., last September.
Today, the White House defended the president's record on earmarks.
"As the president said today, it was time to take change one step further," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "And I think the president was clear that, if there are earmarks that get through the process that he thinks are unnecessary, he will work on a vehicle to remove those from our spending priorities."
When asked Tuesday if the president had considered any of the earmarks in the bill wasteful, Gibbs said: "I think it's reasonable to assume that the president has not gone through each and every item in the legislation," an answer that might leave voters perplexed since less than six months ago as a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to comb through the entire budget.
"I will go through the entire federal budget, page by page, line by line, and eliminate programs that don't work and aren't needed," Obama said in Arlington, Va., in October.
Gibbs said earlier this week that the president will draw some clear lines in terms of earmark reforms "soon." Meanwhile, Obama's calls to Congress for more accountability are being met with skepticism by some.
"The reforms he proposed are already either there or meaningless," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, told ABC News. "Look, you've got to veto these bills to stop this practice."
Obama's former rival has blasted the president before for conducting "business as usual."
But Republicans' arguments against the earmarks in the bill were undercut by the fact that more than 40 percent of the earmarks were associated with GOP lawmakers, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., associated with more than $75 million in earmarks in the spending bill, including a nearly $1 million bike path.
The number one Senate earmarker, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, is Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., associated with more than $473 million in earmarks.
The administration says it will hold a summit Thursday on being responsible with taxpayer dollars.