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House Dems adopt limits on 'earmarks,' deficit spending
The San Francisco Chronicle
Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
January 6, 2007

Washington -- House Democrats, seeking to show they will be better stewards of taxpayers' money than their Republican predecessors, approved new budget rules Friday that require any new spending or tax cuts to be paid for by other spending cuts or tax increases.

The so-called pay-as-you-go budget rules were passed with broad support as part of a package that also requires lawmakers to disclose which "earmarks," or spending items, they have added to bills. The explosion of earmarks in recent years -- including the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska -- fueled voters' anger and contributed to Republicans' election losses last fall.

The rules changes were a one-two punch by new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, signaling the Democrats' plans to break from the deficit spending that has marked the last six years under President Bush and the GOP-led Congress. But the new rules also could sharply curtail the new Democratic majority's efforts to boost spending on domestic programs, such as health care and education.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a top policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton, intensified the debate Friday by accusing Republicans of taking a projected $5 billion budget surplus left by Clinton and converting it into a sea of red ink.

"You did something no American president and no Congress has ever tried in American history: three wars, three tax cuts and $3 trillion in new debt," Emanuel said. "On day No. 2, Democrats have said enough is enough with running up the debt and the deficit in this country. We're going to begin to take steps to put our fiscal house in order."

Republicans defended themselves by asserting that recent budget deficits were caused by outside factors -- such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a weakening economy -- rather than their spending. And they warned that the new "pay-go" rules were a prelude to rolling back Bush's tax cuts to pay for new Democratic spending on entitlement programs.

"This is a trapdoor that will lead to tax increases by the new Democratic majority," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence added: "The American people ought to know that this proposal translates to 'you pay as the Congress goes on spending.' "

The push for the new budget rules was led by the Blue Dog Democrats, the moderate-to-conservative House members whose ranks swelled after the party's victories in November. Many of the new Democrats won in GOP-leaning districts by accusing Republican incumbents of spending taxpayers' money without care.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., the former National Football League quarterback and newly elected Blue Dog Democrat, drove the point home at a news conference Friday by cutting a credit card in half with scissors.

"If Congress is going to buy something, we need to figure out how to pay for it," added Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., another newly elected member. "That is what the small-business owners, farmers and families in the Eighth Congressional District of Pennsylvania do every day."

Earmark reform also became a hot election-year issue, especially after former San Diego County Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was convicted and sent to prison for doling out earmarks to defense contractors in return for more than $2 million in bribes. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the appropriations committees earmarks "favor factories."

The new rules require members to publicly disclose their earmark requests and to certify that neither they nor their spouses will benefit financially from the requests. The measure also bars House leaders from providing earmarks to lawmakers in exchange for their votes on other legislation.

The earmark reforms drew rare praise from Republicans. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has led a yearslong crusade against earmarks, said the new majority went further in opening up the secretive process than GOP leaders were willing to go last year.

"Democrats had more guts than we did," Flake said.

But congressional watchdog groups said the Democrats' earmark reforms still had weak spots. Citizens Against Government Waste said the new rules do not cover earmarks that benefit more than one state or a specific federal agency, nor do they limit the number of earmarks or the overall cost.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted that earmarks skyrocketed under Republican control of Congress, from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,877 in 2005, and their value doubled to $47.4 billion.

Polls show the public supports efforts to limit earmarks and end deficit spending, and politicians of both parties are scrambling to respond. Bush said this week he will submit a plan to balance the budget in five years, and called on Congress to reduce earmarks. But budget hawks said Bush has failed to rein in spending during his first six years.

Democrats were giddy at having notched back-to-back legislative wins, first on new ethics rules Thursday and then on budget and earmark reform Friday. The "pay-go" budget rules were backed by 48 Republicans -- a sign that many GOP lawmakers liked the idea or were worried they'd be targeted with campaign ads in two years if they voted against a budget-balancing measure.

The rule changes apply only to the House and do not need approval from the Senate or the president. The Senate is scheduled beginning Monday to take up its own ethics package, which includes a version of earmark reform.

Pelosi, in a statement late Friday, crowed about her party's early successes.

"These reforms are just our first steps," she said. "In the coming months, we will propose legislation to close the revolving door between government officials and lobbying firms and shine a light on lobbyists' efforts to influence legislation."

E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile@sfchronicle.com.

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