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(We didn't notice this promise when we created the Obameter database. But we had several reader requests to include it and got a fresh reminder this week while fact-checking a claim about
Obama's position on earmarks
. So we are adding it as Promise No. 512.)
During the presidential campaign, earmark reform was a major theme for John McCain, who often highlighted projects of other candidates that he considered wasteful. During the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2008, Barack Obama said he had stopped requesting earmarks as a senator and that he shared McCain's desire for earmark reform and the elimination of wasteful projects.
McCain noted that Obama had made $932 million in earmark requests during his first three years as a senator and he criticized Obama for saying earmarks accounted for "only $18 billion" in federal spending.
Obama replied, "John, nobody is denying that $18 billion is important. And, absolutely, we need earmark reform . And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely."
In his first six weeks as president, Obama has faced two huge spending bills that each gave him a major opportunity to demonstrate that "line-by-line" approach on earmarks. But there were two very different outcomes:
• The $787 billion economic stimulus bill. Obama prominently called for it to be free of earmarks and repeatedly said he achieved that goal. PolitiFact found a handful of projects in the bill that we consider to be earmarks — a program to reimburse Filipino veterans of World War II, money for a power plant in Illinois, among others — but they were small considering the giant size of the bill. Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington group that tracks spending, calls the stimulus bill "largely earmark-free."
• The $410 billion Omnibus bill for 2009. Depending how you count them, there are upwards of 9,000 earmarks in the bill, which is the product of nine appropriations bills that were not passed last fall. The White House says Obama plans to sign the bill later this week after it passes the Senate. Obama's aides have downplayed the significance of the earmarks, saying they came from a budget process that mostly took place before Obama was elected. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said March 2 that Obama will soon be outlining his policy on handling earmarks.
For now, however, as we assess the "line-by-line" promise, we're faced with two very different approaches.
On the economic stimulus, Obama took a strong and vocal stand against them and showed what he could do with the power of the bully pulpit. The bill was not earmark-free as he claimed, but it was close.
The Omnibus, however, is loaded with earmarks. Obama and the White House could have used the bully pulpit to criticize them. But they have not been very critical, nor have they indicated any attempt to go "line by line" through the bill to look for wasteful programs, as Obama pledged during the campaign.
Administration budget chief Peter Orszag said, "We want to just move on. Let's get this bill done, get it into law and move forward."
For now, with those sharply different results, we find this promise deserves a Compromise. But we'll be watching this one and will revisit it later.
Project VoteSmart, Transcript of First Presidential Debate , Sept. 26, 2008
PolitiFact, Stimulus bill includes projects some consider earmarks , Feb. 4, 2009
PolitiFact, McCain says Omnibus bill packed with earmarks and pork , Feb. 25, 2009
Associated Press, Obama will sign spending bill despite earmarks , Feb. 2, 2009
Interview: Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense, March 3, 2009