WASHINGTON — He was once the most vocal Capitol Hill defender of congressional earmarks, but Sen. Harry Reid said Thursday he had little choice but to agree to a moratorium on earmarked spending for at least this year.
The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Tuesday he would enforce a ban on earmarks in spending bills. That announcement by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, puts Senate Democrats, headed by Reid as majority leader, on record against earmarks alongside President Barack Obama and Republicans who control the House of Representatives.
The announcement was viewed as a retreat by Reid, D-Nev., who a week ago said that the latest crusade against earmarks merely was "a lot of pretty talk" and that a ban on hometown spending would not dent the budget deficit.
Reid said Thursday he "agreed to take a timeout for one year" on earmarks in the face of Obama’s threat in his State of the Union speech to veto bills containing directed spending and the potential for the issue to snag legislation over the course of the year.
"The president said he would veto the bills," Reid said. "And Senator Inouye needs to get his appropriations bills done. With this hanging over us, we can’t get them done."
Inouye, a veteran senator who like Reid has argued Congress has constitutional authority to direct federal spending, likewise was reluctant to crack down on earmarks. But with Obama’s veto threat, "the handwriting is clearly on the wall," he said.
"Next year, when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by the members of this body, we will most certainly revisit this issue and explore ways to improve the earmarking process," Inouye said.
In the meantime, Inouye said the ban would be in effect for 2011 and 2012 spending bills. But Reid said it would be only one year, and he planned to resume seeking earmarks in 2012.
A Reid spokesman said there was no disagreement between Reid and Inouye.
"Senator Reid agrees with Senator Inouye that there will be no earmarks in appropriations bills this year," spokesman Zac Petkanas said. "As Senator Inouye has said, we will reassess at the end of the year when we more fully understand the impacts of this policy."
Reid stressed the moratorium affects only appropriations bills. That means authorization bills are fair game. The Senate is debating a federal aviation authorization bill this week, but Reid staff said Thursday there are no Nevada earmarks in it.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said appropriations bills for fiscal 2010 contained 9,499 earmarks worth $15.9 billion. Reid ranked eighth in Senate spending, having a hand in 168 earmarks totaling $267.6 million, according to the group.
Earmarks are the process of lawmakers inserting language into spending bills directing federal agencies to provide grants or contracts to interests in their states, often bypassing hearings, other review channels or competition with other needs.
Critics say earmarks, which they call "pork barrel," are a symbol of federal spending out of control. But Capitol Hill institutionalists, like Reid, argue that it is the prerogative of the legislative branch to have a hand in spending decisions and that ceding that authority would increase the power of the president.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.