Saying no to senators

May 16, 2006

Leaders often complain of the difficulty in applying order to the Senate. "Like herding cats" is a favorite description of keeping 100 independent operators in line.

Far worse than senators' lack of discipline, though, is the way they collude to protect each other's prerogatives, often against what might appear to be good judgment. Rarely do they cross each other, for fear of recrimination.

So perhaps it's no wonder Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has been little more than a hapless bystander as his flock piled $14.5 billion in politically sweet but not at all necessary spending projects onto an emergency bill designed to quickly get funds to soldiers in Iraq and victims of Katrina.

But the compromise plan floated by Mr. Frist's office for paring the measure down to President Bush's $94.4 billion ceiling is galling nonetheless. Instead of slashing off all that pork - the $700 million railroad relocation to accommodate Gulf Coast developers, say, or the $3.4 billion in subsidies for Midwest farmers - Mr. Frist proposes an across-the-board cut of 13.2 percent for all items in the Senate bill.

In other words, emergency money for the war and hurricane victims - money the government doesn't now have but will have to borrow with interest charges far into the future - would be reduced to make more room for Senate pork. This is a new low in the shameless quest for federal booty that cries out for swift and unequivocal rejection by the House and the White House.

If Mr. Bush's emergency spending bill, which also includes money to support peacekeepers in Darfur and to prepare for an outbreak of the Asian flu, can reasonably be tightened by 13.2 percent, then taxpayers ought to be given a break -not the senators' pet projects.

A tiny chorus of House and Senate reformers has been rightly focused on such earmarks as a primary source of potential corruption. Too many lawmakers can get what they want with too few questions asked.

Congress certainly has a right, even a responsibility, to indicate its priorities for spending within budget categories - and not leave all such decisions to the administration or the bureaucracy. But too often these earmarks are add-ons that simply increase overall budget totals. Any reform worth the name would require that earmarks compete with other possible uses of the money within a specific spending category.

But when it comes to emergency spending - when money is put on the government's credit card because the urgency is so great - these pork-laden, election-year goodies for the homefolks should have no place at all.

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