Congressional Observer: April 2008

 - April 2, 2008, 10:12 AM

• As Washington pundits predicted, the $3.1 trillion budget President Bush proposed for the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2008, received a cold reception from Democrats; Republicans were lukewarm on it. This being an election year, Presidential goals are not necessarily those of lawmakers and contentious negotiations might not resolve differences by election day. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the proposal “fiscally irresponsible and highly deceptive.” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “The focus is not going to be on the President’s budget but on what the next President will do.” Although Bush proposed cutting 151 programs that would save $18 billion, which was only six-tenths of one percent of federal spending, critics faulted that as too little and expected Congress would reject many of the proposals.

• Earmarks or “pork” amendments continued to merit the attention of government spending watchdog groups. The Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) named Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) the 2007 “Porker of the Year.” CAGW noted that Murtha inserted pork whenever possible to serve himself and his district and that in Fiscal Year 2008 he brought home 72 pork-barrel projects costing $149.2 million. Last spring when colleagues challenged a $23 million project Murtha inserted into the Intelligence Authorization Act, he let loose a temper tantrum and threatened to block their earmarked amendments. CAGW noted that Murtha consistently put up roadblocks and barriers to earmark accountability and reform proposals.

• Taxpayers for Common Sense released a report noting that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) helped garner more than $340 million for home-state projects in last year’s spending bills, placing her among the top 10 Senate recipients of earmarks. Among the earmarks were $1.6 million (co-sponsored) to fund technology development by a defense contractor and $3 million to the Rochester Institute of Technology for a fuel-cell technology program. A $1 million earmark for a museum devoted to the Woodstock music festival was rejected in a Senate vote. It was one of the few earmarks turned down in a House or Senate vote.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) earmarked a total $91 million, placing him in the bottom quarter of senators who sought earmarks. Among Obama’s earmarks were $3 million to the Rock Island Arsenal for a military and fire police building and $750,000 for the education initiative at Benedictine University.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spurned earmarks based on his view that such measures prompt needless spending. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim De Mint (R-S.C.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) did not propose any earmarks. Representatives who did not secure any earmarks were John Boehner (R-Ohio), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), John Kline (R-Minn.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

• House Republicans who were eager to reclaim the party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility forced a vote on an earmark reform bill that would put a stop to pork-barrel spending and establish a panel to write more reform measures. By a vote of 204 to 196 that was split along party lines, Democrats held sway and rejected the measure. Democrats called President Bush’s executive order to curb earmarks in appropriations bills meaningless political posturing and hypocritical because Bush did not challenge earmarks when Republicans controlled Congress.

• Before a scheduled vote on an ethics reform proposal, Democrats dropped the proposal from consideration. Months in the making, the proposal would have created a new Office of Congressional Ethics run by a bipartisan group of six non-lawmakers to review ethics complaints against members and staff and forward them to the existing Committee of Standards of Official Conduct. Although both parties in the House agreed that the ethics system needed improvement, the proposed
call for a new outside body met opposition. 

• A 35-count indictment handed up by a Tucson grand jury accused Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, insurance fraud and extortion. Renzi, a three-term lawmaker who earlier stated that he would not
run for re-election, pleaded not guilty. Meanwhile, the House Ethics Committee indicated that it would begin an investigation into Renzi’s conduct.