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A Good First Step On Earmarks

It isn’t exactly unilateral disarmament, but House members from both parties have voluntarily put down one of their big guns in the annual battle over $1 trillion in federal discretionary spending. They deserve some credit for it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, with the support of their party’s caucus, decreed last week that there will be no more budgetary “earmarks” for private for-profit corporations, though lawmakers will still be able to steer federal funds to non-profit groups and state or local government agencies. Because the majority Democrats control the legislation that reaches the House floor, this step in the direction of good government is binding on House Republicans, too — at least until Republicans take power or the Democrats change their minds.

House Republicans responded the next day by swearing off earmarks entirely — but only for one year.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has been trying to force a vote on a bill that would ban all earmarks for a year. “We need to focus on balancing the budget, not pork barrel spending that has wasted money on bridges to nowhere, teapot museums, and monuments to politicians,” he said.

With the public’s respect for Congress at a remarkably low ebb, members in both houses have good reason to change the way they do business. Last spring, the House launched an investigation of seven members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense spending. The representatives were suspected of rewarding campaign contributors with government contracts.

Combined, the companies considered by the investigation, all of which were clients of the now-defunct lobbying firm Paul Magliocchetti and Associates Group, gave more than $834,000 to the seven members and received their endorsements for earmarked grants of more than $245 million.

Legislatures have budget committees so that no single member has the power to use the public dime to reward supporters. But legislatures also have ways of circumventing this protection. In Congress, individual legislators can tack earmarks onto spending bills, designating specific recipients for funds. In Albany, N.Y., state budget earmarks are known as “member items.” Other places have other names. Whatever you call them, earmarks cost taxpayers money by diverting funds from the public till for projects that often could not make it through the standard budget process on their own merits.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct cleared all seven defense subcommittee members, saying that it could find no evidence “that members or their official staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks.” However, the report also said that there was a “widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists” that campaign contributions were useful in securing legislative attention and assistance.

There certainly appears to be a connection between what legislators get and what they give. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group, found that 68 percent of the companies and universities that wanted earmarks and contributed to Senate defense appropriators this year got money, compared to just 48 percent of those who did not make contributions. While lawmakers are supposed to keep fundraising and legislating separate, in many cases the same staff members are involved in both activities.

Ultimately, it is up to voters to insist on reform. Legislators use their power to reward contributors because that money helps them to win elections. When voters start penalizing elected officials for doing business this way, they will stop.

House members seem to see the writing on the wall, and they got the message. Good for them — and us.

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