WASHINGTON — As a candidate, Barack Obama once said that a president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Wednesday he proved it, though not in the way he had in mind.
He criticized pork barrel spending in the form of "earmarks," urging changes in the way that Congress adopts the spending proposals. Then he signed a spending bill that contains nearly 9,000 of them, some that members of his own staff shoved in last year when they were still members of Congress.
"Let there be no doubt, this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability," Obama said.
He said, however, that it was crucial for him to sign the $410 billion bill as soon as it arrived at the White House from Congress because it's needed to finance much of the government for the rest of this fiscal year. It was largely written last year but was held back while Republican George W. Bush was president because he opposed it.
""I am signing an imperfect . . . bill," Obama said, "because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do. We can't have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery."
Obama proposed changing the way special projects are financed, including competitive bidding for spending that goes to for-profit businesses. Aides also said that the White House Office of Management and Budget would review the spending bill for examples of wasteful spending. The president then could send those back to Congress as proposed cuts, called rescissions, for an up-or-down vote.
Although Obama insisted that the recently enacted $787 billion plan to stimulate the economy be free of any earmarks — spending on special projects usually in senators' home states or representatives' districts — he made no such demand of this spending bill.
"The president could have done better. He couldn't have eliminated the earmarks in this bill, but he could have at least cut them back significantly," said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. "We appreciate how he kept them out of the stimulus, but we think he's only batting .500."
"The American people know actions speak louder than words," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House of Representatives. "The president's new promises on earmark reform would carry greater weight if they had been accompanied by a veto keeping his earlier promises on earmark reform."
The bill contains 8,816 earmarks worth $7.6 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Notable among them are $155.9 million worth of projects that six members of the Obama administration who were members of Congress last year, when the bill was originally written, inserted into the bill.
Top among them was Vice President Joe Biden. As a senator from Delaware, Biden added 56 earmarks that cost a total of $52.1 million, including $13.7 million for the Intracoastal Waterway from the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay and $190,000 to help build a children's museum in Wilmington.
The White House has pledged to send legislation to Congress seeking the rescission of all earmarks sponsored by current members of the Obama administration.
Geographically, Alaska topped the list, with 100 earmarks valued at $143 million, or $209.71 per capita. Next was North Dakota, with $110 million or $172 per capita.
The data show that it pays to be a top Appropriations Committee official. Hawaii, the home state of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, came in third, at $165 million, or $128.12 per capita. Fourth was Mississippi, represented by top Republican Appropriations member Thad Cochran, with $324 million in earmarks, or $110.59 per capita.
Last on the list: Arizona, the home state of Sen. John McCain, with $54 million, or $8.41 per capita. McCain railed against the practice throughout the weeklong Senate debate, just as he did in last year's presidential campaign, but his effort to effectively erase earmarks from the bill failed by a big margin Monday night.
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