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Pots, Kettles and Earmarks

President Bush plans to throw down the gauntlet on earmarks in his State of the Union address tonight, vowing to veto appropriations bills this year that don't cut earmark spending by at least half.

But many members of Congress have some earmark advice of their own that they'd like Bush to follow: Look in the mirror.

Capitol Briefing will try to spare you most of the semantic details, but the bottom line is that the executive branch asks for -- and gets -- earmarks too. The Bush administration doesn't label ITS spending requests earmarks. But Congress does, as do spending watchdog groups.

"We say an earmark is an earmark, and that's what [an executive branch request] is," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It is a provision that is funding a project or an entity in a specific location"

Examples of executive branch earmarks can include no-bid federal contracts, or the entire Army Corps of Engineers budget. In the latter case, the administration will ask for X amount of money to be spent on Y dam or levee project, and Congress will write those requests into the reports accompanying spending bills.

The White House doesn't see it that way. Rob Portman, then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, explained at a press briefing last year that "so-called executive branch earmarks" are "based on a competitive merit-based process where someone in the government decides, based on national priorities, in a fully transparent way, where money ought to be spent."

And Ellis agreed that there is at least some transparency in executive branch requests, since the administration typically explains to Congress why it wants the projects. "You're going to see much more of the abuses occurring in the congressional earmarks than in the executive earmarks," he said.

But it still irks members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that the White House will slap the Hill over earmarks with one hand while holding the other hand out for earmarks of its own.

Over the weekend, House GOP leaders sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking her to agree to a moratorium on earmarks, but the letter also noted that "the executive branch should be held accountable for its own earmark practices. The executive branch asks for earmarks, too, and has done so under administrations Republican and Democratic alike."

As for Bush's overall earmarks plan -- which also includes an executive order instructing federal agencies to ignore earmark requests written into bill reports rather than the actual bill language -- it is receiving a warm welcome from the Hill GOP.

"House Republicans applaud the President's pledge to veto bills that do not significantly slash earmarks and provide appropriate transparency in spending," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who also reiterated the party's call for Democrats to agree to an earmark moratorium.

But Democrats say Bush is just following their lead, and note that the president never seemed that concerned about earmarks when they were growing exponentially under Republican majorities.

"Republicans let earmarks get wildly out of control before they lost power," said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations panel majority. "Democrats instituted a one year moratorium, put in place new rules for disclosure and transparency, and drastically reduced the amount earmarked. Now they're scrambling to scrape the egg off their face."

By Ben Pershing  |  January 28, 2008; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch , Purse Strings  
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Next: SOTU Expectations Low on the Hill

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