Democrats devise a plan to slice the ‘pork’ out of spending bills

Published 7:23 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Democrats taking power in January have settled on a plan to clean up $463 billion worth of GOP budget leftovers, but they’re not happy about it — and neither is the White House.

The plan by the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees would kill thousands of hometown projects, called “earmarks,” that lawmakers add to spending bills. Staying within President Bush’s thrifty budgets for domestic agencies like the Agriculture and Education departments is part of their proposal.

“There will be no congressional earmarks,” Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday in a statement announcing their plans, which were endorsed by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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Although critics call hometown projects “pork,” their sponsors claim that, as elected representatives, they know more about the needs of people in their states than the president and government bureaucrats. Projects they often want funded range from road, bridge and flood-control construction to economic development. Beneficiaries include local governments, hospitals and universities.

Such projects exploded in number under GOP control of Congress over the last 12 years. At the same time they spawned a boom on Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor, where consultants earn big fees by helping outsiders navigate the system.

Democrats face a huge bind: having to complete nine unfinished budget bills for the 2007 fiscal year that began Oct. 1 while trying to advance their own agenda.

They say they now plan to offer a single spending bill covering 13 Cabinet departments. The unappealing alternative was a time- and energy-consuming legislative slog just as Bush’s new budget and a $100 billion-plus Iraq funding bill are due to arrive on Capitol Hill.

“It is important that we clear the decks quickly so that we can get to work on the American people’s priorities, the president’s anticipated war funding request and a new budget,” Obey and Byrd said in a statement.

The bill should encounter little resistance from Republicans and the White House since it will stay within Bush’s tight budget limits. Yet the White House risks losing priorities such as increased foreign aid for countries demonstrating a commitment to democracy and free markets and moves to boost America’s competitiveness in math and science.

White House Budget Director Rob Portman called the Democrats’ announcement disappointing.

“There are still more than nine months remaining in the fiscal year, and we believe we should be working on the remaining bills to achieve the best results possible for the American people,” Portman said. He added that the administration wants to “maintain fiscal discipline and avoid gimmicks and unwarranted emergency spending.”

The move won applause from a Senate GOP conservative who worked to block Republicans in his own party from passing a huge, pork-laden spending bill in their final days controlling Congress.

“I’m glad the Democrats are taking a time-out on pork-barrel spending,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. “It’s refreshing to hear them say they are going to reform the earmarking process to make it transparent and accountable.”

Congress got a black eye over mandating project-specific appropriations when former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for earmarking projects to defense contractors. Cunningham, who held seats on the House intelligence and appropriations committees, is now serving an eight-year federal prison sentence.

Obey and Byrd said lawmakers could reapply for home-state projects next year when Congress turns to the fiscal 2008 budget cycle, after reforms of the earmarking process are put in place.

They said some of the money set aside for home-state earmarks will be shifted to programs that Democrats feel have been shortchanged by Bush’s budget, such as health research, education and grants to local law enforcement agencies.

Just how much money would be redirected is unclear. Projects such as levees and federal grants to housing and transit authorities will still be funded, but the administration will determine how to spend pools of money that Congress usually divides up, specifying the amounts for particular projects.

Returning authority to the White House to specify which projects get how much money raises the risk of an even more closed process. The administration could use the process to reward allies and punish critics. Veteran appropriations committee members also could lobby over the phone for earmarks even as they leave them out of the upcoming spending bill.