Some sunshine

June 22, 2007

Shutting down the favor factory that has gotten so many lawmakers in trouble on Capital Hill is proving very difficult.

Democrats were forced last week to drop an arrogant and unworkable proposal by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, who had taken it upon himself to review more than 31,000 spending requests for pet projects with no opportunity to challenge his choices.

Now, the favored projects will be advertised by sponsor and attached to spending bills before they reach the House floor, so opponents may challenge them.

But it's too bad Mr. Obey didn't junk the corrupting practice altogether, as his Democratic colleagues had warned might happen. Legislators trading spending favors among themselves precludes objective oversight of how taxpayer money should best be spent.

Reform of the congressional earmark practice, through which lawmakers grab goodies for their districts and none but malcontents question the others' booty, is an unpopular cause on Capitol Hill. Very few members of Congress have their hearts in it.

Mostly, these items represent legislative meddling with federal agency budgets on behalf of projects that may have lost out in a more neutral review process. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, for example, released an earmark wish list in excess of $300 million - from sophisticated weapons systems to highway interchanges to repair of the C&O Canal towpath. Mr. Bartlett's goal, said a spokeswoman, is to keep spending as low as possible but to fight for as big a slice of the pie as he can get. In some cases, though, earmarks are added on to agency spending so the pie just gets bigger.

A handful of lonely crusaders have been battling against earmarks for years. But the drive for reform this year was inspired by a series of scandals in which lawmakers criminally abused the process.

Equally important is the vigilance of tight-fisted bloggers who now have the tools to keep a sharp eye on how money is spent and spread the word. Democrats should not make the mistake of assuming that only C-SPAN junkies are paying attention. If a new scandal hits, others voters will tune in quickly enough.

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