The Obameter

Reduce earmarks to 1994 levels

"Barack Obama is committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994."


Updates

Earmarks aren't just at 1994 levels -- they're officially gone

In the nearly seven years since we last looked at President Barack Obama's promise to return congressional earmarks to their 1994 level, a lot has happened. Enough, in fact, to turn a Promise Broken into a Promise Kept.

The progress on earmarks is largely due to the efforts of congressional Republicans rather than Obama himself.

An earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. That's why Obama promised to curb their use.

When we last checked this promise in February 2010, earmarks had not fallen below their 1994 level of $7.8 billion a year.

But in the 2010 elections, the Republicans won control of the House and implemented a moratorium on earmarks that remains in force. The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, also announced a moratorium, and that has continued under the chamber's Republican majority that took power after the 2014 elections.

The enactment of the moratorium has proven "satisfactory" to Taxpayers for Common Sense, one of the leading groups that opposed earmarks, said the group's vice president, Steve Ellis.

In fiscal year 2010, Ellis said, there were roughly 9,000 officially disclosed earmarks and another 500 suspected earmarks that were not disclosed, his group's analysis found. The moratorium has eliminated all earmarks in the first category -- those that are officially disclosed, he said. There may be some hidden earmarks escaping notice, Ellis said, but congressional leaders "are holding themselves to their standard, so we're okay with it."

There has been some speculation that lawmakers could revive earmarks to one extent or another in the next Congress, but if that were to happen, it would occur after Obama has left office. So we won't consider that possibility here.

It's worth noting that lawmakers, rather than Obama, were the primary drivers of the policy change. Still, Obama was an advocate for getting rid of earmarks, and it was enacted on his watch. So we rate it a Promise Kept.

Sources:

Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Dec. 16, 2016

Earmarks continue unabated

The final numbers are in, and as expected President Barack Obama was unable to keep his promise to hold earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994.

An earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. That's why Obama promised to curb their use.

On Feb. 17, 2010, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a leading watchdog group, released its study of congressional earmarking for fiscal year 2010. For that fiscal year, the group says, appropriations bills contained 9,499 congressional earmarks worth $15.9 billion. The group's "apples-to-apples" comparison found that earmarking increased slightly from the prior year -- from $15.6 billion to $15.9 billion.

So the group's study found that the amount earmarked in fiscal year 2010 was more than twice as large as it was in 1994.

After we ran our previous assessment of this promise, several readers said we should have taken into account inflation since 1994 in judging this promise. But looking closely at what Obama said, we concluded that adjusting for inflation is irrelevant to an accurate analysis. The exact promise was that "Barack Obama is committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994." The way this was phrased, the operative amount is $7.8 billion a year, not whatever the current value of 1994's earmarks are.

And according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense study, the value of earmarks in fiscal year 2010 was well above $7.8 billion. So our rating remains Promise Broken.

Sources:

Taxpayers for Common Sense, "TCS FY2010 Earmark Analysis: Apples-to-Apples Increase in Earmarks," Feb. 17, 2010

President unable to sway Congress on slashing earmarks

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that he is "committed to returning earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994."

First, a little background on what earmarks are. An earmark is a requirement that money approved by Congress be spent in a specific way at the request of a lawmaker. Critics have long argued that earmarks are likelier to serve the interest of a particular congressional district or constituent group than the national good. So it's no surprise that Obama, like his 2008 presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has targeted them for reform.
 
But in reality, the president's leverage on earmarks is limited. The rules on how Congress operates are up to Congress. All the president can do, beyond using his bully pulpit, is veto appropriations bills sent his way. That can be effective for saber-rattling purposes, but ultimately it is a blunt tool, and one that presidents tend to be wary of, since using it risks a government shutdown if the existing spending bills expire without new ones in place.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told PolitiFact during early January that the group's running tally of congressional earmarks -- a tabulation widely noted in Washington circles -- had already exceeded $10 billion for the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills. That number includes the earmarks that Congress has disclosed. But judging by past experience, Ellis said, that number is likely to rise as the group continues its research, because in the past, many earmarks that have been created were never officially disclosed by Congress.

We'll aim to post an update when the group's tally is official, but he's already exceeded the 1994 level with what's been publicly disclosed. We conclude that the president's inability to curb earmarking, unsurprising as it may be, earns him a Promise Broken.

Sources:

E-mail interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Jan. 12, 2010