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Obama Addresses the Earmark Obsession

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.'"

By Dan Froomkin  |  March 11, 2009; 12:31 PM ET
 
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Comments

Earmarks keep funds going to my state of TX to go to projects that will do more than they would if left for the state to direct them. There is a lot of graft involved in awarding contracts at the state level here, not that the earmarks are always pure as driven snow either.

Posted by: jocabel | March 11, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Jocabel makes a great point. Earmarks merely direct money. The question of earmark reform is basically one of who is going to direct where the federal budget dollars are going to be spent.

Of course Congress makes broad determinations of where the money will be spent. Within the budget of each department and the dollars sent to each state there are countless earmarks for how that money should be spent. Most of these are non-controversial and come out of committee recommendations.

On top of all this there are more specific earmarks which fund pet projects or local projects. These earmarks garner the bulk of the outrage from McCain and his cohorts, but they represent a small percentage of the budget.

If you trust your local government then you'd like them to get money unfettered with earmarks. If you trust your state then you'd like them to get unfettered money. If you don't trust your local or state government then you might prefer that money be earmarked specifically so it can be spent appropriately rather than passed through the corrupt local system.

Posted by: fletc3her | March 11, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Obama's reform suggestions are spot-on. Since he's a good speaker I wish he would have included a sentence or two to educate the public about what earmarks really are, as fletc3her points out. The only way to beat back GOP hyperbole is with honesty and facts delivered by the president, not by subcontracting an editorial to the House majority leader.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | March 11, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Pot meet kettle...Dan, define "heavily earmarked." According to Shailagh Murray in your paper, "Earmarks account for just 1 percent of the bill's overall cost..."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/10/AR2009031002653.html

Posted by: OllyMcPherson | March 11, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

What needs to be reformed is the process...not the concept...of course we heard from our GOP insurgents on this matter...even though the bill was stuffed with Republican spending as well...more importantly...many of the programs highlighted as pork and wasteful spending are in fact spending we need....especially the honey-bee research.

Posted by: constwkr | March 11, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

OllyMcPherson, what Froomkin means is that there are lots and lots of earmarks in the bill, but when you add up the dollar amounts, they don't add up to a big amount. Yeah, that part could have been worded better.

Posted by: rlg3526 | March 11, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

what we need to be more worried about is the wasteful spending that was NOT earmarked....at least we know where that money is going and what it will be used for....

Posted by: constwkr | March 11, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Obama may not have compaigned against earmarks; He may like (some) earmarks; But vetoing the bill would still have been the right thing to do. If earmarks are good, they should be passed in separate bills on their own merits.

Obama enjoys tremendous popularity. Now is the time to make use of it, not next year when his popularity is sure to be lower (went down in my eyes today) and he will be unable to sustain a veto.

Posted by: donlibes | March 11, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

To Mann's point I would say that earmarks cheat taxpayers of the value they are supposed to be getting from federal employees who are supposed to be applying their expertise to spend the money in the most effective way. When a Congressman just cuts a check and circumvents the agency, taxpayers are paying for expensive skills that are not utilized. Not to mention that the money is probably not spent in the best way possible to achieve the programs goal.

Posted by: Kat72 | March 11, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Just to add to the point I made earlier, the NY Times says there are 9000 earmarks in the bill, but as we know, the cost of all of those earmarks makes up less than 2% of the bill.

Posted by: rlg3526 | March 11, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Excellent paper on earmarks* worth scanning and/or reading. Factoid: increase in the number of earmarks since 1994 (Newt and Republicans takeover in congress as a historical reference point) from 1,300 to 13,000 in 2005.

I believe the intent of earmarks is to bypass the executives role/power in the budgeting process.

I also believe that money for Israel is done thru the earmarking process.

I would guess there is far more waste and corruption in the DOD budgeting process in terms of bang for buck. I would assert that there are a lot of de facto earmarks in DOD budget that would make "real" earmarks pale in comparison.

As an aside: it's just amazing how quickly and easily one can fact-check one's own beliefs and assertions using google. Just amazing. Provided one can take the time to do so.

*http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/hjackson/Earmarks_16.pdf


Posted by: mickster1 | March 11, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

well,

typical Republicans. They have no problems with "earmarks" as they grew many in their last 8 years. Their problem is with whom the "earmarks" go to.

Transfer payments to large numbers of Americans = "pork" and "socialism"

Transfer payments to their large campaign contributors = Uhhh, can you say "TARP"?


Love the Limbaugh controversy, can I have more please!

Posted by: stormriderproductions | March 11, 2009 6:56 PM | Report abuse

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