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A start on earmarks ; Congress must craft a better system to protect important local projects

Placing a moratorium on "earmarks," as reported in The News this week, may amount to little more than a symbolic gesture on the part of the new Republican majority in Congress, but the practice of earmarking has often been ugly and it needs to be reformed.

Call it a moratorium or a timeout, but what needs to happen is for Congress to use this moment to figure out how better to assess the value of local projects and to responsibly dole out federal money that can make the difference between a growing economy and a dying one. Simply cutting off funding is a radical solution that, in the end, is unlikely to work.

That fact is that, while a lot of federal dollars are wasted on earmarks, many go to important projects. Even a short hiatus from earmarks -- or, as critics put it, pork-barrel spending -- has an impact, and not always a good one.

There are many examples. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which had several large projects on tap, is one of many in Western New York that will be hurt by the missing allocation. That project lies at the heart of Buffalo's plans to develop a thriving new economy. In total, the area will lose out on $32 million in federal funding in the works this year.

That's real money that many were depending on to turn the tide here. We're talking about everything from the Medical Campus to the waterfront to infrastructure in towns and villages. Even the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station may go without $9.5 million in improvements. Now those entities will either have to find a new revenue source or change their plans.

Having said that, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the reason for this pullback, given the national distaste for wasteful spending and a budget deficit that is spinning out of control, courtesy of both parties.

Indeed, while some earmarks are valuable -- including most that have been championed by the Western New York delegation -- not all projects have been worth the money. Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" comes to mind.

It's no wonder earmarks have developed a bad reputation. As House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, put it, "Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people." He considers this earmark ban as offering proof to the American people that Congress is listening. That's fine, but Congress also needs to act -- to craft safeguards that discourage abuse while acknowledging that some projects are truly important and, perhaps even more fundamentally, that members of Congress will not long refrain from delivering money to their home districts. The pressure on them, regardless of party, will simply be too great.

In the midst of national financial alarms, it would be reckless to do anything but support a step back from business as usual. But this timeout has to be productive. Moratorium, hiatus, whatever it's called, the nation needs this timeout. Congress should spend it wisely.

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