Democrats tidying up a cluster of unfinished spending bills dumped on them by departing Republican leaders in Congress will start by removing billions of dollars in lawmakers’ pet projects next month.
The move, orchestrated by the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, could prove politically savvy even as it proves unpopular with other members of Congress, who as a group will lose thousands of so-called earmarks.
"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 quickly endorsed by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Earmarks are congressionally mandated projects such as grants for local governments, home-state universities and hospitals, roads, bridges and flood control construction, and economic development efforts not included in the president’s spending proposals.
Often called "pork" by critics, their sponsors defend inserting the projects into spending bills by claiming that, as elected representatives, they know more about the needs of people in their states and government programs than the president or bureaucrats in the executive branch.
Such projects have exploded in number under GOP control of Congress over the last 12 years and at the same time have spawned a boom on Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor, where consultants earn big fees by helping outsiders navigate the system.
Democrats, facing a huge bind in having to complete nine unfinished budget bills at the same time they want to advance their own agenda, say they now plan to advance a single spending bill covering 13 Cabinet departments. The unappealing alternative was a time- and energy-consuming legislative slog just as President 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.
The bill should encounter little resistance from Republicans and the White House since it will stick within President Bush’s tight budget limits for domestic programs.
Nonetheless, 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," he 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 earned 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 re-apply 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 in the pending bills for home-state earmarks will be shifted to programs 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.
Obey and Byrd said their plan "provides the administration far too much latitude in spending the people’s money. But that is a temporary price that we will pay" to be able to devote time and energy to Bush’s Iraq funding request and next year’s budget.
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 — the "Old Bulls" of Congress — also could lobby over the phone for earmarks even as they leave them out of the upcoming spending bill.