Congressional Democrats are starting to show the kind of mettle that has been lacking on Capitol Hill since the 9/1 1 terror attacks, demanding evidence to support proposed changes in Iraq strategy and closing the door, at least somewhat, on the member-driven spending known as earmarks.
The latter could cause some problems for Western New York, but it's generally a good sign for the country as long as the actions of the new majority are driven by national, not partisan, interest.
Most urgent is conduct of the war in Iraq. While the Republicans who recently controlled Congress acted more as defenders of administration policies than as a check on presidential adventuring, Democrats are saying they want President Bush to back up his proposals with facts. Specifically, Democrats say the president will have to show that any plan to send more troops is sensible.
"If the president wants to add to this mission, he's going to have to justify it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on the CBS News show "Face the Nation." She promised Congress would not cut off funding for troops now, but said the White House no longer will have a "blank check" to expand the war. That's what Republicans should have been saying all along.
Nearly as important is the Democrats' plan to cut back on pork spending, though the list of endangered projects shows that not all pork is created equal. Indeed, construction of a new federal courthouse in Buffalo has been mentioned, even though it sits at the top of Washington's courthouse list and is not actually an "earmark."
Certainly, a new courthouse would benefit the community through construction jobs and aesthetics, but it is not "pork" in the way that most taxpayers understand that word. It's not a mohair subsidy, or funding for a nice but unnecessary new museum tacked onto another bill or not authoritatively requested.
It's a judicial branch top priority, requested by that branch and subject to hearings by a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It should be funded immediately through routine budget channels.
We hope the courthouse project, and others like it around the country, won't be severely compromised, but the federal spending bender that Republicans have gone on since Bush's election had to come to an end. Not only had Congress and the president abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, but, as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter observed, earmark madness "has fueled the major corruption scandals plaguing this body."
Democrats have already shown their vulnerability to the lure of partisan gamesmanship, so an element of risk attaches to their newfound spine, especially if oversight of the war devolves into anti-Bush strategizing. But that is a gamble at any time, whoever controls Congress. The Democrats need to make sure their judgment is sound, but other than that, these changes are worth having, risks included.