A grand gesture

December 15, 2006

The Democrats about to take over leadership of the House and Senate appropriations committees have already angered their colleagues and outraged lobbyists.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin decided to strip upward of $10 billion in pork-barrel earmarks from the unfinished spending bills that Republicans are leaving behind and put a closed sign on the "favor factory" until the earmarking process is reformed.

That means all the goodies so lovingly and painstakingly attached to the 10 remaining spending bills before time ran out last week won't be part of the fiscal 2007 federal budget - a no-frills measure intended to keep the government functioning until next fall while Congress devotes its main attention to shaping the spending bills for 2008.

Judging from the harsh reaction, the appropriations leaders may have a tough time enforcing their earmark moratorium. But they should find the will to do it - if only to show that Democrats reject business as usual.

Neither Senator Byrd nor Representative Obey is known as a critic of earmarks; quite the opposite in the case of Mr. Byrd, who is famous for the outsized federal spending he has returned to his poor state. Their gesture was a protest against the GOP failure to complete budget work, and against the enormous surge of earmarks during Republican rule - some of which were illegal payoffs.

Many, if not most, of the hundreds of pet projects legislators tacked onto spending bills can be justified. For example, the estimated $1 billion added to the spending bills that finance health, education and housing includes $600,000 for Baltimore's Kennedy-Krieger Institute to finance facilities and equipment, $150,000 to New Song Urban Ministries in Baltimore to build a preschool and community center, $250,000 to Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown, also for facilities and equipment, and $500,000 to Anne Arundel Community College for health-professions education.

But they ought to be approved through the regular review process, not slipped down a greased skid with no debate or consideration of other possible uses of the money.

Senator Byrd and Representative Obey promised this week "to restore an accountable, above-board, transparent process for funding decisions and put an end to the abuses that have harmed the credibility of Congress."

Eliminating earmarks altogether would be best, but this step looks like a very good start.

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