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Earmarks to Bear Tougher Scrutiny Under Obama Plan

President Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill Wednesday, despite the fact that the bill contains the kind of earmarks he decried on the campaign trail. Congress watcher Norman Ornstein examines the issue.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    President Obama insisted today Congress must rein in the abuse of earmarks in spending bills. At the same time, he signed off on a huge bill containing thousands of the special projects.

    Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The president defended his decision to sign the $410 billion omnibus bill funding the government the rest of this fiscal year. He said he reluctantly accepted nearly 8,000 earmarks.

    BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do. We can't have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery.

    But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change. So let there be no doubt: This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    As Mr. Obama envisions it, that new era would mean higher standards and greater transparency when lawmakers seek special projects.

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose. Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' Web sites in advance so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves.

    Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.

    I recognize that Congress has the power of the purse. As a former senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best and they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities. I don't quarrel with that.

    But leadership requires setting an example and setting priorities. And the magnitude of the economic crisis we face requires responsibility on all our parts.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Outside Congress, earmarks are routinely denounced as "pork." But inside, the vast majority of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle view the projects as beneficial to their home states.

    Democratic House member Ellen Tauscher of California agreed with some of what the president wants, as long as lawmakers keep hold of the purse strings.

    REP. ELLEN TAUSCHER (D), California: This is about transparency. This is about making sure that we have members of Congress held accountable, local governments held accountable for spending that money the way the people want it to.

    But at the same time, we have a representative government. And an equal branch of government is the Congress. And we are meant to take what the president's priorities are, and we're meant to define them as we see fit for our constituents.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The president promised to work with Congress. He said he'd submit proposed cuts in earmarked spending that Congress could accept or ignore.

    Among Republicans, a long-time critic of earmarks, Sen. John McCain, complained that's not nearly good enough. He said in a statement, "The president could have resolved this issue in one statement: No more unauthorized pork-barrel projects and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed."

    And Republican Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana said there's another immediate solution open to the Congress.

    REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: Before we get to a reform system, Congress and this administration should embrace a moratorium on all earmarks. Until we can push away from the table, set with a banquet of pork, and reinvent this system in a way that will truly be accountable and truly be transparent to the American people, it's hard for me to believe that we'll ever bring about the changes that will restore public confidence in the way we spend the people's money in large ways and small ways.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Democrats showed no sign of going that far. Instead, House Democratic leaders outlined proposals building on reforms begun by both parties since 2006.

    From now on, the House Appropriations Committee will submit every earmark to the appropriate agency for review, and projects granted to commercial companies will go through competitive bidding. The first test of those rules and the president's plan will come later.

    This afternoon, in private, he signed the omnibus bill, including its earmarks, into law.

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