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Earmarks Unlikely to End in Democratic Congress

Democrats may have declared a one-year moratorium on pet projects treasured by members of Congress, but the move will hardly stop horse trading in Washington or moves by lawmakers to try to steer taxpayer money back home.

Nor will it touch billions of dollars in already budgeted Pentagon earmarks, which go to everything from research into better body armor for overseas troops to finding bone marrow matches to treat leukemia patients.

The temporary ban on earmarks — footnotes in spending bills that lawmakers use to deliver federal bacon to their states — has been greeted with applause by budget hawks and is seen as a savvy political move. But many in the rank and file are not happy.

"I've had my share of calls and they weren't to wish me a Merry Christmas," said incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

Earmarks have exploded in number and cost under GOP control of Congress and Congress got a black eye when former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for earmarking projects to defense contractors. The Bush administration and budget hawks have protested in vain.

Obey and his Senate counterpart Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., have promised to eliminate lawmakers' pet projects as they fashion a catchall spending bill to close out about $463 billion in unfinished budget business — dumped on them by outgoing Republicans.

Byrd and Obey have announced a plan to fund most domestic agency accounts at 2006 levels, with some increases to avoid layoffs of federal employees and for politically sensitive programs such as veterans' medical treatment.

Some of the money to pay for such add-ons will come from accounts used by lawmakers to send earmarks back to their districts and states. But Congress is unlikely to drain all the money from such accounts — which run the gamut from agricultural research, flood control and grants to local police and fire departments, among many others.

That means projects will go ahead in many instances, but it will be up to Bush administration officials, spread throughout dozens of federal agencies, to determine who gets the money. Instead of looking to bills passed by Congress — or rosters of projects listed in accompanying reports — agency chiefs will have enormous discretion to award projects.

In response, lawmakers are likely to pick up the phone and write letters as they lobby agency officials to go ahead with their earmarks.

"We're going to continue to make the strongest case we can to whomever we need to fund projects we believe have a broad, positive impact on the district and are supported by the communities in which they exist," said Betsy Hawkings, chief of staff to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

"Even if things aren't always earmarked in report language or in a bill, sometimes there's conversations that occur between members ... and agencies," said Christin Baker, spokeswoman for the White House budget office.

Some Democrats are worried that Bush officials will use their power to help their GOP friends.

"Republican members are going to get their projects and Democratic members will not," said a Democratic staff aide responsible for writing one of nine unfinished appropriations bills. The aide is not authorized to speak with reporters and declined to be quoted by name.

But GOP officials awarding earmarks also need to be careful or run the risk of retribution from powerful Democrats writing agency budgets later next year.

"As Senator Byrd likes to say, everybody has to come back to the watering hole," said Byrd's spokesman, Tom Gavin. "And the Appropriations Committee is the watering hole."

In going forward, Bush officials are likely to fund projects included in its February budget or approved in other bills such as the defense authorization measure.

That would mean construction of federal courthouses and other federal buildings is likely to go forward, as is new housing and other construction on military bases. But earmarks for projects such as grants for after-school programs and local hospitals are more likely to get shelved.

Democratic leaders vow to reform the earmark process by requiring the names of lawmakers be listed along with their projects. And they promise to scale back the number and cost of lawmakers' pet projects.

Some lawmakers are worried that in reducing the number of earmarks, a disproportionate share would go to powerful members of the Appropriations committees and to senior lawmakers, with far fewer given to the rank and file. A chief reason for the massive growth in earmarks is that GOP leaders spread them around to everyone who asked for them.

"People bemoan the 'explosion' of earmarks but what we did was we democratized it," said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., a subcommittee chairman — or "cardinal"— on the Appropriations Committee. "We took what was the purview of a few so-called cardinals ... and we gave members all across the country the opportunity to give us their priorities."