The other white meat

December 26, 2005

Some of the credit goes to Katrina, the giant storm that all but consumed the federal budget.

Maybe more thanks should go to the "Bridge to Nowhere," a project for Alaska so dubious it focused attention for months on the practice of allowing congressional lawmakers to slip goodies for the homefolks into giant spending bills with no questions asked.

Whatever the motivation, Congress was shamed into forsaking such individual "earmarks" on this year's $600 billion version of the measure that finances a broad array of health, education and social programs. Predictably, howling from the homefolks - including Marylanders - has already begun.

Everyone exempts their own spending priorities from the category of pork. That includes the local nurses' training and substance abuse programs that had been counting on Maryland lawmakers to bring them a little bit of the bacon.

But this back-channel spending is one of the reasons that the federal government has racked up such an enormous debt. Any effort at belt-tightening must begin by jettisoning the federal equivalent of last-minute, impulse, credit card purchases with little thought given to whether they are necessary or affordable.

Congress added $27 billion to the federal tab this way last year through a cozy bipartisan understanding that gives every lawmaker a share of the mad money. The only real review of their requests comes when state agencies as well as private and nonprofit groups compete to be included on their local representative's wish list.

According to The Sun's Gwyneth K. Shaw, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski received about 80 such requests totaling $100 million for projects seeking to be added to the health, education and social programs measure, which is just one of the 13 appropriations measures that typically bear a load of earmarks. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, had proposed that 24 projects be added to the health and education bill before Republican leaders decided to keep all earmarks off the measure.

Individual lawmakers love to be able to make spending decisions for their states. It advances their re-election prospects. But that's no way to write a tight-fisted budget. Spending decisions should be made in the context of national priorities, not according to the clout of legislative sponsors.

Forgoing pet projects on this one spending bill was a good start. Next year, the whole lot should be eliminated.

After all, there's still Katrina to pay for.

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