Obama signs $410B spending bill full of earmarks; warns this is the last one

  • Article by: PETER BAKER and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN , New York Times
  • Updated: March 11, 2009 - 8:24 PM

He urged a new era with new rules, but Republicans said his effort was "like washing down a doughnut with a Slim-Fast shake."

WASHINGTON - President Obama said on Wednesday that he will sign an "imperfect" spending bill packed with special projects in order to keep government running, but he vowed that it will be the last one and proposed ways to curb lawmakers from abusing the process in the future.

Obama, trying to regain the high ground after withering criticism that he was betraying campaign promises by signing the $410 billion package, said that from now on he would seek to eliminate projects with "no legitimate public purpose."

He said that members of Congress who propose earmarks should post them on their websites for public inspection and that the measures should be discussed at public hearings. And he said earmarks benefiting for-profit companies should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts.

'An end to the old way'

"The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past," Obama said. "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."

His remarks coincided with new policies announced by House Democrats intended to further restrict earmarks. From now on, Democratic leaders said, the executive branch must be given 20 days to review any earmarks. And they said they would impose the restriction on money directed to for-profit firms, as Obama proposed.

The new policies and proposals were timed to minimize political damage from enacting the spending bill. The bill finances the operations of many government agencies through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, but the earmarks, representing 1 percent of the bill, have drawn attacks for wasting money on political pork. Among the earmarks are 13 that benefit clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm in Washington that is under federal investigation for alleged campaign-finance abuses.

The White House said early on that it would not oppose the bill, calling it "last year's business," meaning the final regular spending for the fiscal year that started under President George W. Bush. Obama's aides said privately that they did not want a confrontation with Congress over the earmarks at a time when the president needs cooperation on other priorities.

Republicans 'note the irony'

Although he publicly announced his proposals to reduce earmarks, Obama signed the spending bill out of public sight. Republicans mocked him for hiding his action.

"Pardon us if we note the irony of signing a bill into law that contains close to 9,000 earmarks on the very day that the president pushes alleged earmark reform," said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader. "It's like washing down a doughnut with a Slim-Fast shake."

Obama returned fire at Republicans by implying hypocrisy on their part since they too have earmarks in the bill. He said, "I also find it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their owns."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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