WASHINGTON — Even though President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged to ban congressional earmarks, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has 16 such projects, worth about $8.5 million, in the bill the Senate is scheduled to begin debating Tuesday.
The earmarks include funds for a Chicago planetarium and a Chicago suburb. Obama has been relentless in criticizing the use of earmarks; in his address to a joint session of Congress last week, he boasted how the economic stimulus package was "free of earmarks."
By the end of this week, however, he's likely to sign a separate $410 billion spending plan that keeps most domestic programs funded through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. It's a plan that now contains about 9,000 earmarks.
Emanuel, who until Jan. 2 was a congressman from Chicago, Sunday dismissed the bill as "last year's business." Most the measure was written in 2008. It stalled when the Democratic-led Congress and former President George W. Bush disagreed on spending levels.
Emanuel's name remains on the bill, and senior adviser Sarah Feinberg explained, "He has no control over it." House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Kirstin Brost, when asked why Emanuel, like other former members of Congress, still has his name on earmarks, said, "Why not?"
Among the projects with Emanuel's name attached are $900,000 for equipment at Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum; $95,000 for "educational expenses" at the Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, Ill.; and $950,000 for "street rehabilitation" in the village of Franklin Park, Ill.
Feinberg explained the projects should not be viewed as Emanuel's earmarks, but "funding that belongs to the people of the Fifth District of Illinois." He represented the district for six years.
Feinberg maintained that "most" of Emanuel's earmarks were co-sponsored by other Illinois members of Congress.
"So while I realize you can technically report that he has some earmarks that were included in the omnibus (spending bill)," she said in an e-mail, "those projects for his district were supported by other members of the delegation as well."
Emanuel had partners on some earmarks. He joined members from several states on a $404,000 earmark for Great Lakes Basin program for soil erosion and sediment control. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis, both Illinois Democrats, also sought the planetarium funds, and Emanuel teamed with another Illinois Democrat, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, for the Kohl money.
Davis also joined Emanuel on a $294,772 earmark for job training and placement money for low and moderate income people, and other delegation members teamed with Emanuel on an earmark with unspecified funds for the Union Pacific Northwest rail line and $300,000 for a criminal justice grant to help curb violence in Chicago.
He was alone on other projects, including $1 million to Northwestern University for Great Lakes restoration, a $1.2 million juvenile justice grant to Chicago public schools; $190,000 to the Children's Memorial Research Center in Chicago; $190,000 for a homeless facility in Palatine, Ill., and local road projects.
The overall spending bill would provide an 8 percent increase in spending, and while the earmarks represent less than 1 percent of the cost, they've become political fodder for budget critics.
"The president campaigned against wasteful spending, and he ought to veto this bill," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Curbing earmarks can be difficult, however. About 40 percent of the projects were inserted in the bill by Republicans. And even some of Obama's staunchest congressional allies insist that they can be useful.
"We are a separate branch of government and since we've been a country, we have had the obligation as a Congress to help direct spending," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats buried in this town someplace to take care of the needs of the state of Nevada, Washington and New York."
Defenders of the system, as well as Emanuel, maintain that they haven't abused the practice. Earmarks have come under fire because at times, they're favors for lobbyists and special interests and are inserted into legislation at the last minute. Identifying the sponsor or the favored interest can be very difficult.
Feinberg, however, noted that Emanuel always listed on his House Web site earmarks he requests and how the funding would be used. So did many other members.
Emanuel, for instance, wrote to appropriations committee leaders March 16, 2008, how the Kohl children's museum money "would be used for increasing the number of qualified early childhood educators."
The federal funds will help the museum support about 20 early childhood teachers-in-training. The teachers will work at the museum while taking college courses and getting practical experience.
In separate letters, Emanuel explained other projects, usually in one-sentence paragraphs. No one responded to requests for comment at the Adler planetarium and the Village of Franklin Park.
Earmark requests are reviewed by one of the appropriations subcommittees — each specializes in a different subject area — and then must be approved by the entire committee before going into the bill.
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