Embarrassed, for once

June 19, 2006

Call this the doctrine of overwhelming force, spending style.

Just as former Gen. Colin L. Powell advocated fighting wars using "every resource and tool" available, that leave-no-soldier-back-at-the-barracks approach is what it took to persuade the Senate last week to give up $14 billion in pork projects it had added with abandon to emergency legislation financing the Iraq war and Katrina recovery.

Like the Powell doctrine, the proportion of effort to results was like using a sledgehammer on an ant. But it's not often two of the most audacious Senate spenders are beaten. Any tactic that works against Mississippi Republicans Trent Lott and Thad Cochran deserves respect.

But what a display of force! President Bush threatened to wield his first-ever veto if the Senate didn't back down - a gesture made in response to pleas from Senate Republican leaders unable to impose discipline on their own. The Republican-led House, which had passed its version of the bill within the president's $92.5 billion ceiling, stood firm and unblinking in the face of Senate pressure.

Meanwhile, a watchdog group of fiscal hawks had turned the election-year spotlight on the $700 million "railroad to nowhere" that Senators Lott and Cochran shamelessly added to the emergency measure. Citizens for Government Waste alerted voters that sympathy for soldiers and hurricane victims was being exploited for an economic development project that could easily have been submitted through the regular budget process.

By the time the spending bill got to Mr. Bush's desk last week, the railroad was gone, and so was $3.5 billion worth of farm subsidies, another $1 billion in fishery subsidies and billions of dollars' worth of other items.

The setback for the spenders is by no means permanent. Congress has yet to pass legislation that would do away with the practice of "earmarking" projects in spending measures so they can escape the scrutiny of a full review and avoid competing with other potential uses of the money.

It's encouraging to learn that with enough public attention, Congress is capable of being embarrassed into the doing the right thing. But the budget process should be designed so alert citizens don't have work so hard.

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