The Associated Press—3/11/09
Congress on Tuesday sent President Barack Obama a once-bipartisan bill to fund the domestic Cabinet agencies that evolved instead into a symbol of lawmakers' free-spending ways and penchant for back-home pet projects. The Senate approved the measure by voice after it cleared a key procedural hurdle by a 62-35 vote. Sixty votes were required to shut down debate.
Obama is expected to sign the measure Wednesday to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. But the White House has kept the bill at arm's length, calling it last year's business. Obama is also set to announce steps aimed at curbing lawmakers' so-called earmarks.
The $410 billion bill is chock-full of those pet projects and significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.
The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama's spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan forecasting a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year. And Republicans seized on Obama's willingness to sign a bill packed with earmarks after he assailed them as a candidate.
"If it had not been for the stimulus and the budget proposal it might have been ... noncontroversial," said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. "The stimulus bill riled an awful lot of people up. ... And then the budget proposal comes out."
Within Democratic ranks, there was relief, not jubilation.
The 1,132-page spending bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund foreign aid and the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
It also contains numerous policy changes, including shutting down a program allowing Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond U.S.-Mexico border zones, easing rules on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island to visit relatives and allowing quick reversal of Bush administration rules opposed by environmentalists.
Described by lawmakers as a $410 billion measure — but officially tallied by the Congressional Budget Office at $408 billion because of technicalities involving heating subsidies for the poor — the bill was written mostly over the course of last year, with support from key Republicans such as McConnell and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate's No. 3 Republican.
They sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee. McConnell is the successful sponsor or co-sponsor of $76 million worth of "earmarks" not requested by Bush when he president, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Alexander obtained a more modest 36 earmarks totaling $32 million.
Alexander supported the measure in the end; McConnell did not, calling it a "missed opportunity" to display fiscal discipline.
In the end, eight Republicans voted with all but three Democrats who were present, to advance the bill.
At issue is the approximately one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress for the operating budgets of Cabinet departments and other agencies. The rest of the budget is comprised of benefits programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid _ as well as interest payments on the swelling $11 trillion national debt.
Adding in spending bills passed last year for defense, homeland security and the Veterans Administration — as well as $288.7 billion in appropriated money in the stimulus bill — total appropriations so far for 2009 have reached $1.4 trillion. And that's before the Pentagon submits another $75 billion or so request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Appropriated spending for 2008 was $1.2 trillion; Obama's budget for next year calls for $1.3 trillion in appropriations.
To the embarrassment of Obama —who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel ways — the bill contains 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to the GOP staff of the House Appropriations Committee. Republicans got about 40 percent of the earmarks.
Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision. There's also dozens of projects awarding state and local governments money for police equipment and to combat methamphetamine.
At the same time, the measure chips away at several leftover Bush administration policies. It clears the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration that says greenhouse gases may not be restricted to protect polar bears from global warming. Another Bush administration rule that reduced the input of federal scientists in endangered species decisions can also be quickly overturned without a lengthy rulemaking process.
The big increases — among them a 14% boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10% increase for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.
Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.
Congress also awarded itself a 10% increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion. But the measure contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.