OMB chief tells agencies to ignore earmarks not written into law

The White House is instructing federal agencies to ignore earmarks that are not written into law, in keeping with a prohibition on pet projects Democrats included in a sweeping spending measure Congress approved Wednesday.

In a memo sent to all agency heads Thursday, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman wrote they should only honor earmarks contained in statute or otherwise subjected to rigorous review. The memo also makes clear agencies should not fund earmarks based solely on lobbying from lawmakers or other interested parties.

In the $463.5 billion fiscal 2007 full-year funding bill President Bush signed into law Thursday, Democrats removed about 9,300 earmarks that had been slated for approval under the regular fiscal 2007 spending bills, many simply listed in reports accompanying the bills. The measure contains no new earmarks, as well as a provision stipulating that earmarks contained in fiscal 2006 reports "shall have no legal effect."

Spending bills typically include earmarks in the reports as recommendations, meaning they have no force of law. But agencies are often guided by such congressional directives, in part because of the influence on their budgets wielded by powerful lawmakers.

"For agencies funded by the CR, this means that unless a project or activity is specifically identified in statutory text, agencies should not obligate funds on the basis of earmarks contained in congressional reports or other written documents," Portman's memo states. "While the administration welcomes input to help make informed decisions, no oral or written communication shall supersede statutory criteria, competitive awards, or merit-based decision-making" based on authorizing language, funding formulas and existing policy governing contracts, grants and awards.

Conservative earmark reformers praised the White House memo, saying it would prevent "backdoor" earmarks funded as a result of e-mails and phone calls from powerful lawmakers or interest groups.

"For too long, Washington has handed out American tax dollars based on seniority and political jockeying. This year, these funds will be given out based on merit," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., chairman of the conservative Senate GOP Steering Committee.

Some lawmakers complained about the Democrats' move to eliminate earmarks, arguing it hands too much power to the executive branch to make spending decisions. Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was unabashed about his disappointment that the individual fiscal 2007 spending bills were scrapped.

"My staff and I will now closely monitor how federal agencies decide how to distribute the funding they gain in the continuing resolution," Domenici said in a statement. "I want to make sure that, where possible, that additional funding is directed to the New Mexico programs and projects that stand to lose out with Congress' failure to complete the 2007 appropriations bills."

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