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Spending freeze targets pet projects for members of Congress

WASHINGTON—Democratic leaders in the new Congress plan to strip funding for thousands of pet projects for individual members, a big display of fiscal discipline they say will help cut deficits and curb spending abuses.

As soon as they take control on Jan. 4, Democrats plan to impose a one-year moratorium on all special projects, known as earmarks, effectively killing those that were tucked into unfinished spending bills by the Republican-led Congress.

Although earmarks are best known for financing big public works projects, the moratorium will come with a distinct human cost.

Like a $250,000 earmark for Best Buddies International in Miami to help provide friendships and employment for the mentally retarded. A $250,000 earmark for a Kansas City domestic violence shelter's effort to expand a school-based anti-violence program. Another $250,000 earmark to expand services to the vision-impaired in Alaska. And $50,000 for the Hungry Lil' Readers Club in Minneapolis.

Overall, the House of Representatives and Senate spending bills for education and social services had about $1 billion in earmarks. Hundreds of millions more lay in other spending bills for similar programs. After-school programs, family literacy programs, health programs: All losing key funding.

As Congress prepares to consider another $100-plus billion emergency appropriation to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some fear that the hardship is falling disproportionately on small groups and organizations.

"If what's happening with these earmarks is that it's all the little things that are getting cut, it's not like we're all in it together," said Lina Belar, a project manager with the History Museum of East Otter Tail County in Perham, Minn. Museum officials received a call from the office of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., telling them that the museum's $150,000 earmark for a new veterans exhibit, which passed the House, is now on the chopping block.

Many of the earmarks were small compared with the multimillion-dollar earmarks frequently found in bills that pay for defense and transportation.

But local social service agencies typically operate close to the bone.

"This source of funding can be critical to a non-profit," said Gene Morgan, president of the Kansas City Community Center, which stands to lose a $500,000 earmark from Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond to improve safety and security at a halfway house it runs in midtown Kansas City. "I just don't have that kind of cash laying around."

Those who are losing money don't understand why Congress can't differentiate between a good earmark and a bad one.

"This is not a pork barrel," said the Rev. Sam Mann, executive director of Kansas City's United Inner City Services, for which Bond obtained a $750,000 earmark to expand early learning programs for poor urban kids. "This is money going to uplift a neighborhood and children."

Earmarks, sometimes derisively called "pork" projects, are special appropriations that pay for everything from social programs to hospital improvements to road construction to research. While they've long been popular with Democrats and Republicans alike, earmarks became a big issue in the 2006 congressional campaigns because of some widely publicized scandals. Among them were a $452 million earmark for two bridges in Alaska and a bribery scheme that landed former Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California in prison after he accepted more than $2 million in bribes after providing special earmarks for defense contractors.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, Sen. Robert Bryd, D-Va., and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the incoming chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees, said that the moratorium will remain in effect "until a reformed process is put in place" and that earmarks included in this year's House and Senate bills will be eligible for consideration in 2008. They said the moratorium is the result of "fiscal mayhem" left over by the Republican Congress.

"Republicans have spent years handing out billions upon billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires while shortchanging our national priorities," Obey said. "It is going to take us years to get back on track."

The moratorium has the backing of President Bush, who called it "a good start" toward imposing fiscal discipline on Capitol Hill. In his weekly radio address Dec. 16, Bush said that the number of earmarks has exploded in recent years, going from about 3,000 in 1996 to 13,000 in 2006. He said Congress has created a system where earmarks are often approved with no public debate.

"It is not surprising that this often leads to unnecessary federal spending, such as a swimming pool or a teapot museum tucked into a big spending bill," Bush said.

But some Republicans say earmarks have been a great help to their constituents, and they fear that the new Congress might be going too far.

"The danger now is that Congress could swing from one extreme to the other, leaving important projects without much-needed funding," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Obey said there are no perfect solutions, but he noted that Republican leaders adjourned this year without passing a budget and without passing nine of the 11 major appropriations bills needed to keep the government running. As a result, he said, Republicans "forfeited their right to complain about whatever action we are forced to take next year to clean up their chaotic mess."

Organizations affected by the moratorium shouldn't fret, said David Williams, vice president of policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. But he said projects no longer will be able to quietly slip through a back channel with no hearing.

"They're going to have to go through the checks and balances and the competitive bidding process," he said. "It's a lot more difficult to go through the proper process, but really it is a lot fairer."

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Brady Averill contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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