Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Democrats want timeout on special-interest money

Democrats want timeout on special-interest money
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats taking control of Congress next month say they will try to ban for the remainder of fiscal 2007 the special-interest "pork" projects that got Republicans in so much trouble with voters in the November elections.

"We will place a moratorium on all earmarks until a reformed process is put in place," the incoming Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations panels, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, said late on Monday.

The recent proliferation of billions of dollars worth of special-interest projects being attached to annual spending bills likely contributed to Republicans losing majority control of Congress in November elections.

The projects have become the target of ridicule by those who say they represent wasteful spending. Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," an expensive 2005 project aimed at constructing a span to a small island that already had ferry service for the few residents, became one of the most glaring examples of Congress' addiction to "pork," critics said.

Members of Congress who seek out such projects argue they legitimately use taxpayer funds for local projects.

When the 110th Congress convenes on January 4, new Democratic leaders will be saddled with passing funding bills the Republican-controlled 109th Congress failed to do for the fiscal year that began on October 1.

As a result, most domestic programs are being run by a stopgap funding bill that expires on February 15.

Obey and Byrd said that when the new Congress convenes, they will push for passage of one gigantic bill to take care of this year's federal funding.


Only two of the 11 regular appropriations bills have been passed by Congress and signed into law. They cover around $500 billion in spending for the Defense Department and domestic security.

That leaves about $460 billion in funds, mostly for various domestic programs, that still need to be funded for the period of February 16-September 30.

"We are now responsible for finding a way out of this fiscal mayhem," said Byrd and Obey.

A spokesman for Byrd said the exact level of funding was still not determined for the large funding bill.

He noted that certain agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, will need additional funds to cover the growing costs of medical care for soldiers injured in Iraq.

A senior Bush administration official recently complained that the Republican-passed stopgap spending bill, which basically freezes most funding, hurts domestic law enforcement initiatives.

White House budget director Rob Portman said it was "disappointing" that Congress next year will not pass the nine remaining spending bills. He also warned Congress to "avoid gimmicks and unwarranted emergency spending."

Democrats have accused the White House of engaging in budget gimmicks over the past few years, especially because of its refusal to include realistic Iraq and Afghanistan war costs in budget plans and instead paying for the war through emergency spending requests.

Another such request, which could top $100 billion, is expected from Bush around early February, further complicating the work of the new Congress.