By Dan Froomkin
12:31 PM ET, 03/11/2009
President Obama today expressed a sense of weariness over the media's obsession with earmarks -- the pet projects members of Congress stick into appropriations bills -- while at the same time outlining his proposal to reduce and reform their use in the future. In the meantime, Obama said he would sign a heavily earmarked $410 billion omnibus spending bill that was sent to his desk yesterday.
Earmarks, after all, were not Obama's issue in the campaign -- they were Republican candidate John McCain's. Obama never promised to veto them, just reduce their number and make their sponsors more accountable.
"Yesterday, Congress sent me the final part of last year's budget; a piece of legislation that rolls nine bills required to keep the government running into one – a piece of legislation that addresses the immediate concerns of the American people by making needed investments in line with our urgent national priorities," Obama said.
"That is what nearly 99 percent of this legislation does – the nearly 99 percent you probably haven't heard much about."
In fact, Obama said earmarks have some value: "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."
And he took a swipe at some of the bill's critics: "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."
Obama suggested new guidelines for earmarks that he said were consistent with his pledge to restore "responsibility, transparency, and accountability to the actions government takes." He said that earmarks should be announced and justified ahead of time, shouldn't go to private companies without competitive bidding and shouldn't be traded for political favors.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer wrote in a USA Today op-ed this morning: "Some politicians try to cultivate an image of fiscal discipline by railing against earmarks — and 'pork' also makes a great story for the news media. But as congressional scholar Thomas Mann recently noted, earmarks do not generally increase spending but simply allow members of Congress to direct a small part of a program's funding. 'Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending,' Mann explained, adding that 'hyperbolic attacks on earmarks are a disservice to the public, encouraging people to concentrate way too much attention and energy on a largely symbolic issue and ignore the critical decisions that we face.'"