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Earmarks remain a sticking point for federal budget

WASHINGTON - With the ink almost dry last December on a compromise national budget for fiscal year 2008 (which began in October 2007), President Bush raised the possibility of purging earmarks from the $555 billion bill.

The so-called omnibus budget bill includes almost 9,000 earmarks. Combined with the earmarks in the previously enacted Defense Department budget, the total federal budget includes almost 12,000 earmarks.

Presidential cancellation of earmarks funding, an unprecedented act, would effectively repeal or reassign billions of dollars in domestic spending from the fiscal year 2008 federal budget.

An indeterminable number of earmarks would benefit tribes, as well as Native organizations and individuals. For instance, the omnibus includes a $3.52 million earmark for tribes and tribal organizations to use for mental health and substance abuse treatment, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

''They're critical,'' said Jacqueline Johnson, NCAI executive director. ''Tribes have to look anywhere they can to get funding for their crisis needs.''

Between the criminal activities of former Republican lobbyistJack Abramoff and the folly of ''bridges to nowhere'' in Alaska that stirred public wrath, the definition of earmarks has gotten dodgy. But the definition, once well understood, still holds water: an earmark is a funding provision for a local or in-state project (as opposed to a nationwide project), provided more or less anonymously and generally without benefit of congressional debate, by a lawmaker to constituents. A recent Democratic campaign for reform of the earmarking process has netted only one distinct change, in that the sponsoring lawmaker must now put his or her name on the earmark.

Otherwise, a Republican faction argues in its newfound devotion to fiscal responsibility (earmarking expanded to its present ubiquity on the Republican watch, when the GOP had a majority in both chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives), nothing has changed and earmarks remain the essence of ''pork-barrel politics.'' The going pejorative for what earmarks fund is ''pet projects.''

Bush, entering the last year of his presidency without the prospect of re-election to consider, then planted the idea that he may carve earmarks out of the budget administratively. In his final planned news conference of 2007, Bush said his budget director will ''review options'' in response to the wasteful spending he finds in the omnibus budget. Aides clarified for the Washington Post newspaper that the options could include canceling earmarks altogether.

By common consent in Washington, a move against earmarks would be sure to provoke storms of protest.

White House aides added then that no decision has been made, and they gave no timetable for when the president might make one.

But according to a broadcast aired on National Public Radio Jan. 14, Bush is giving serious consideration to an executive order that would re-direct the earmarks funding to road and bridge repair.

Earmarks have always been legal, as the Constitution clearly assigns Congress the power of the national purse-strings. But they have never been legally binding because they are included in congressional conference reports that accompany appropriations bills, rather than in the actual language of enacted budgets. The conference reports are for the benefit of government agencies that ignore them at their peril, given that Congress controls their budgets. But to be fully repeal-proof, appropriations must be specified in enacted legislation that is signed into law by the president. As Bush stated in his end-of-year news conference, Congress doesn't vote on conference reports and the president doesn't sign them.

Johnson noted that in early 2007, as the earmark reform movement gained momentum among Democrats, Indian country and its advocates in Washington were shocked to discover how many core Native programs are defined as earmarks by the Office of Management and Budget.

Gregory Smith, a lobbyist with Johnston & Associates in Washington, expressed concern. ''Federal Indian country programs are woefully underfunded. Congressional earmarks for Indian country provide significant supplementation of program funding, supplementation that would mostly be lost if the earmarks were eliminated.''