WASHINGTON - Calling it an "imperfect" bill, President Barack Obama signed a $410 billion spending package Wednesday that includes billions in earmarks like those he promised to curb in last year's campaign. He insisted the bill must signal an "end to the old way of doing business." The massive measure supporting federal agencies through the fall contains nearly 8,000 pet projects, earmarked by sponsors though denounced by critics.
Obama defended earmarks when they're "done right," allowing lawmakers to direct money to worthy projects in their districts. But he said they've been abused, and he promised to work with Congress to curb them.
"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government," Obama declared. "But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change."
In a sign of his discomfort with the bill, Obama signed it in private. He declined to answer a shouted reporter's question about why.
Obama also released a "signing statement" in which he said several of the bill's provisions raised constitutional concerns. This week, Obama criticized his predecessor, George W. Bush, for frequently issuing such statements upon signing bills into law. Bush attached the statements to legislation he viewed as placing unconstitutional limits on executive power.
Running for president, Obama denounced the many pet projects as wasteful and open to abuse - and vowed reform.
He said Wednesday that future earmarks must have a "legitimate and worthy public purpose" and that any earmark for a private company should be subject to competitive bidding rules. He said he would "work with Congress" to eliminate any the administration objects to.
He acknowledged that the system of influential lawmakers inserting earmarked projects has bred cynicism, and he declared, "This piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business."
White House officials in recent weeks have dismissed criticism of the earmarks in the bill, saying the legislation was a remnant of last year and that the president planned to turn his attention to future spending instead of looking backward.
Obama's modest reform proposals build upon changes initiated by Republicans in 2006 and strengthened by Democrats two years ago. Most importantly, every earmark and its sponsor would have to be made public.
In new steps - outlined in concert with House Democratic leaders Wednesday morning - the House Appropriations Committee will submit every earmark to the appropriate executive branch agency for a review. And any earmark designed to go to for-profit companies would have to be awarded through competitive bidding.
Obama promised to resurrect a long-defunct process by which the president proposes to cut spending from bills that he has signed into law.
Under this "rescissions" process, the White House sends Congress a roster of cuts for its consideration. Congress is free to ignore the cuts, but both Obama and senior members including Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., say they want to use it to clean out bad earmarks that make it through the process.
Obama declined to endorse a stronger process advocated by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others that would require Congress to vote on a presidential rescission earmark package. Senior Democrats dislike the idea even though many of them backed it in the early- to mid-1990s.
During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel-spending ways. Yet the bill sent from the Democratic-controlled Congress to the White House on Tuesday contained 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
The 1,132-page bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.
Most of the government has been running on a stopgap funding bill set to expire at midnight Wednesday. Refusing to sign the newly completed spending bill would have forced Congress to pass another bill to keep the lights on Thursday or else shut down the massive federal government. That was an unlikely possibility for a president who has spent just seven weeks in office.