White House (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama called on Congress to mend, not end, the earmark process in spending bills on Wednesday, the same day he signed a $410-billion omnibus spending package filled with 8,570 earmarks. The bill is designed to provide funding to keep the government running through September 2009.
Earmarks, individual appropriation items slipped into spending bills by members of Congress – usually without debate or oversight – have been the subject of corruption scandals over the years and debate regarding fiscal responsibility. The bill signed into law by President Obama contains 8,570 earmarks estimated to cost $7.7 billion, according to the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
In his remarks, Obama said that, “Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that’s why I’ve opposed their outright elimination.
“But the fact is that, on occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste and fraud and abuse,” he said. “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.”
As a senator, Obama teamed with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to co-sponsor an earmark reform, which became law. And during a presidential campaign debate in Oxford, Miss., in September 2008, Obama said: “We need earmark reform, and when I am president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.”
On Wednesday, Obama further said: “These practices hit their peak in the middle of this decade, when the number of earmarks had ballooned to more than 16,000, and played a part in a series of corruption cases.”
The 1,000-page omnibus bill contains earmarks for tattoo removal, swine odor, midnight basketball, museums, bike paths, a “Totally Teen Zone,” and the controversial liberal advocacy group National Council of La Raza. The same bill also defunds the school voucher program in the District of Columbia. (See Previous Story)
While Obama delivered a public address about the omnibus bill and earmark reform, he signed the legislation in private. At the end of his remarks, Obama walked away and did not respond to a network news reporter’s question about why he did not sign the bill in public.
During his speech, Obama said earmarks make up only about one percent of the entire bill, which he said is needed to keep the government running for the remainder of fiscal year 2009.
The omnibus bill faced intense opposition from Republicans. But some Democrats also said the legislation was fiscally irresponsible. In the Senate, three Democrats – Evan Bayh of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin – all voted against the legislation. In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Bayh actually called on Obama to veto the legislation. (See Previous Story)
But those three Democratic votes were more than offset by eight Republicans – some who had pork projects in their own states – who helped Democrats to pass the bill. Those Republicans were Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Kit Bond of Missouri, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
“We can’t have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery. But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change. I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill, because it’s necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do,” Obama said.
Obama said he has discussed the reforms with Congress. He said that earmarks should be completely transparent, aired on the Web sites of members of Congress and subject to debate in public hearings.
“Next, any earmark for a for-profit private company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts,” Obama said. “The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions that we’ve already seen.
“Private companies differ from the public entities that Americans rely on every day – schools, and police stations, and fire departments. When somebody is allocating money to those public entities, there’s some confidence that there’s going to be a public purpose. When they are given to private entities, you’ve got potential problems,” he added.
Further, the president said that earmarks should never be traded for favors and that his administration will evaluate every earmark, and if it “determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it, and we’ll work with Congress to do so.”
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