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Senate Bows To Obama on Earmarks

UPDATED: "A Big Capitulation;" Watch Election Contributions

"When President Obama threatened in his State of the Union speech to veto any bill containing earmarks, several people I spoke with later snickered. How is this relatively inexperienced former senator going to put the kibosh on one of the Hill's most treasured rights.

Then our world tipped slightly yesterday with word that Sen. Daniel Inouye, one of the most respected and powerful members of Congress and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced what he called an "earmark moratorium."

"It is a big capitulation by Sen. Inouye. He will surely stick to his plans to 'revisit' and presumably revise the ban in a year after members experience the effects of angry constituent companies and significant drop in press releases announcing good news for the home state," said one former congressional staff member. "There will still be ‘earmarks’ for sure but we’re talking a fraction of what they were in, say, the FY 2010 defense bill."

While House and Senate Republicans -- feeling the heat of all those Tea Party supporters -- had separately announced an earmark ban in mid-November last year, few people expected Inouye or his colleagues to bow.

Then his office sent out a statement yesterday afternoon announcing a two year moratorium that will apply the FY 2011 and FY 2012 spending bills.

Inouye, did not completely yield to the combination of public disgust and presidential arm twisting. "I continue to support the Constitutional right of members of Congress to direct investments to their states and districts under the fiscally responsible and transparent earmarking process that we have established." But then he made clear just how much pressure he perceived there to be. "However, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them. Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."

To give the moratorium some teeth, he said his committee, “will thoroughly review its earmark policy to ensure that every member has a precise definition of what constitutes an earmark.To that end, we will send each member a letter with the interpretation of Rule XLIV (44) that will be used by the Committee. If any member submits a request that is an earmark as defined by that rule, we will respectfully return the request."

One industry source who works with Congress noted that there are ways to get money into a bill without it being an "earmark."

"One really has to look carefully at how the rules define an earmark. You can have directed spending that comes through the Chairman but does not technically bind the agency," this source said.

In spite of all that, the former congressional staffer believes that, "members will surely try to exploit the definition of earmarks when trying to gain support by promoting items “in the national interest. The real indicator to watch will be whether fundraising drops as a result, particularly checks from contractors big and small."

But Inouye's moratorium only lasts until next year, when, he said, "we will most certainly revisit this issue and explore ways to improve the earmarking process."

Then, in a fine example of senatorial majesty, he said he will "once again urge the Senate to consider a transparent and fair earmark process that protects our rights as legislators to answer the petitions of our constituents, regardless of what the President or some Federal bureaucrat thinks is right."

One industry watcher of Congress noted that there may problems with the earmark process but that it has also yielded unique and useful capabilities that the Pentagon has dragged its feet on, such as the Predator UAV.

Of course, journalists will miss earmarks because they often proved great stories.

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