(No earmarks in spending bill)
Barack Obama on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 in a speech to Congress on health care reform.
Earmarks in stimulus? There were at least a few
Last winter, when Congress debated the big economic stimulus package, President Obama declared it should not contain any "earmarks," projects that are often viewed as wasteful or frivolous. In his Sept. 9, 2009, speech to Congress on health care, Obama repeated a claim he's often made that he had succeeded in keeping the stimulus free of earmarks.
We rated this claim a False when the bill was being considered, but it's worth revisiting now that the bill has been signed into law and Obama is citing his record to earn some conservative cred.
What's an earmark?
We need to start by explaining the different ways earmarks are defined. The term comes from the practice of marking the ears of livestock for identification. It has been used in American politics since the 1930s and has come to mean money that is "set aside . . . for a special project or purpose," according to Safire's Political Dictionary, a well-regarded reference book on political terms.
But Safire 's notes that in Congress, the term often has a narrower meaning: "funds that individual senators or representatives specify be directed to projects and activities that will benefit particular people, institutions or locations in their home constituencies."
The Office of Management and Budget, an agency that is essentially an extension of the White House, offers a definition with a little executive branch attitude: "Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds."
If you sense a little snarkiness in the OMB definition, it's because the executive branch doesn't fancy the legislative branch telling it what to do. But members of Congress, particularly those on the Appropriations Committee, say an earmark is simply how the legislative branch fulfills its duty under the Constitution to tell the executive branch what to do. (Article 1, Section 9: "No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.")
Because of the fuss over the "Bridge to Nowhere" and other controversial projects, the House and Senate now have rules requiring members to disclose their requests for earmarks. The Senate avoids the fuzzy term "earmark," preferring the more lawyerly "Congressionally directed spending items," which it defines as "a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process."
The Senate definition also covers tax benefits for "a particular beneficiary or limited group of beneficiaries."
The House rule defines earmark as "a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process."
More earmarking in Senate
The stimulus bill was huge, spending $787 billion in federal money to try to jump-start the economy. In general, the approach was to leave the specific spending decisions to federal agencies and states and municipalities. For example, the bill's don't specify particular highways for federal money. The states can decide.
In that sense, Obama largely succeeded at keeping the bills free of earmarks, according to groups that track federal spending.
"It is not earmark-free, but it is largely earmark-free," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that monitors spending. "The credit for that is largely due to the president. He set a high bar. They didn’t quite make it, but they came close."
Ellis identified four examples of earmarks in the stimulus:
• $1 billion for FutureGen, a coal power plant in Illinois that was supported by Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. It had been scrapped under the Bush administration.
• Money for NASA to repair buildings in Houston that were damaged by Hurricane Rita.
• $50 million for the Central Utah Project, a water project in that state.
Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, agreed that FutureGen project should be considered an earmark but he disagreed with Ellis that the other two would be because they were for government programs that were already authorized.
Ellis also highlighted a section in the bill that which authorizes a federal program to reimburse Filipino veterans of World War II. It is a different kind of earmark. While most earmarks are appropriations that direct the government to spend money on something, the Filipino program had an appropriation but needed a change in the law to allow the money to be spent.
It's worth noting again that Obama managed to get a bill that was largely free of earmarks. But he hasn't left himself much wiggle room. He has consistently said "no earmarks" or at least given the impression the bill had none when in fact it had at least a few, including a billion-dollar project in Illinois.
And so we find his claim False.
Gibbs didn't leave himself any wiggle room. He said "no earmarks." But we see at least a few, so we find his statement to be False.