War on pork-barrel spending moves to Obama era

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On the presidential campaign trail, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made it a central campaign pledge to end the abuse of earmarks, the billions in pet projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills. McCain has lost his chance to shape budget policy from the White House. But he's still got his Senate seat, and he's gearing up to make good on his earmarks promise when the 111th Congress convenes in January. McCain has huddled with his old ally in the good-government wars, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to discuss reform plans, including tough new earmarks rules. Aides to the two senators declined to offer details, but a McCain spokesperson confirmed that the two "are talking about earmarks reform." Whatever earmarks proposal the two come up with will probably include at least some elements of the Pork Barrel Reduction Act, which McCain introduced and Feingold co-sponsored in the 109th Congress. Among other provisions, that bill would have allowed senators to block earmarks by raising a point of order, which under Senate rules take 60 votes to uphold. It would also have required those receiving earmarks to disclose how much they spent on registered lobbyists to obtain the earmark. Congress did include some earmarks disclosure requirements in the lobbying and ethics package it enacted in 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. But while those rules shed light on which lawmakers obtain which earmarks, the disclosure requirements are stronger in the House than in the Senate. Earmarks remain tough to strip out of appropriations bills once they have been inserted, and the president lacks the power to veto line items in the budget. The billions in federal money being set aside for infrastructure and economic stimulus investments, moreover, creates an opening for pork-barrel abuses. Both the economic stimulus and the economic sector bailout packages cry out for greater transparency and accountability, say budget and civic watchdogs. "If we're going to go further into the red in order to stimulate the economy, we'd better make damn sure that every dollar is being spent wisely and appropriately," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The number of earmarks has dropped by almost half in the past two years, from $29 billion in fiscal 2006 to $17.2 billion in fiscal 2008, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. In addition, many lawmakers have voluntarily sworn off earmarks, according to the latest tally kept by the Club for Growth. One of those who pledged to forgo earmarks as a senator is Barack Obama, who like McCain pledged on the campaign trail to shed more light on the budget process. Deficit hawks have hailed Obama's commitment to transparency but warn that his plans to vastly increase domestic spending could end up at odds with his pledge to rein in pork. "It's going to be interesting to see which Obama takes over," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste. "Is it the one who believes that government spending is the way to get us out of this mess? Or is it the one that wants to get rid of earmarks?" Rank-and-file lawmakers on Capitol Hill can be expected to resist efforts to end budget earmarks, which allow them to claim credit for funneling federal dollars to local bridge, rail, highway and civic projects. But each year the list of earmarks invariably contains millions for arguably questionable projects such as protecting bison on public lands and researching subterranean termites. At a time when Treasury funds for economic bailout and stimulus plans are running into the tens of billions, the amount spent on earmarks may strike some as marginal. By some estimates, earmarks represent only one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. But earmarks are "a petri dish for corruption," said Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Government contracts abuses are at the heart of a string of scandals involving federal officials, including Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., imprisoned on federal bribery charges. McCain has repeatedly railed against the corrupting link between lobbyists who dole out campaign cash to lawmakers in exchange for steering government contracts to their clients. The scramble for pork on Capitol Hill also distracts lawmakers from more important matters such as federal oversight, which has been too lax and is now increasingly urgent, say earmarks foes. If nothing else, the mounting federal deficit calls for cutting all waste from the budget, they argue. "When you're in a huge hole, that means that we're going to have to tighten our belts everywhere possible," said Ellis. "And earmarks are certainly one of the areas where that is possible."
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