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Earmark legislation sorely needed

The outrageous anti-democratic practice of earmarking by congressmen has been brought under some semblance of control by the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. It's a practice that both Democrats and Republicans have enjoyed for decades, and that violated all the accepted rules of a democracy.

For those who have not heard about earmarking, here is how it has been working for all of these years. The practice permitted lawmakers to introduce amendments to spending or tax bills without attaching their names to them. These, for the most part, were the pet projects of the congressmen.

The unwritten rules of the House precluded debate on the measure, which then was passed without change. Any congressman who wanted to challenge such an amendment was advised that if he did so, any earmark he introduced would not be approved. That was enough to guarantee that all earmarks, good and bad, became part of the law.

Some very worthwhile Western New York projects are likely to be negatively impacted by the Democrats' vow to eliminate all earmarks for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. High among these is the new $123 million federal courthouse building in Buffalo, which tops the list of federal courthouses that must be built. There is the possibility that the project, now long delayed, could be included in the president's budget for 2008.

The earmark measure passed by the House could possibly and hopefully prevent the kind of corruption that resulted in the imprisonment of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to getting earmarks for a defense contractor in exchange for bribes. Earmarks again will be permitted in the 2008 spending bills, but only if they are fully disclosed before the House votes on them.

In the last 12 years of Republican control of the House, the number of earmarks has risen dramatically at a cost to the taxpayer of more than $64 billion a year. As an example, the number of earmarks in the labor, health and education spending bill rose from zero to more than 3,000.

The just-passed House measure now requires lawmakers to attach their names to the pet items they slip into spending or tax bills and they must certify that they have no financial interest in the provision.

The vote on the new earmark measure was tied to the so-called pay as you go rule, which would prohibit the House from increasing the deficit by passing any new tax cuts or spending programs without offsetting them with spending cuts or tax increases.

Despite the newly passed law on entitlements, a key Democrat has indicated a less than firm commitment to it. "Everything we have done is subject to revision."

On the other hand, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, pledged that the Democrats would cut the number of earmarks in half in the next budget while some Democrats are saying that the new rules could reduce the amount of earmarks and could result in more restraint by the congressmen.

The earmark rule the Democrats passed goes far beyond the proposal they introduced in the spring, which applied only to earmarks that are already well publicized. It also goes further than the one Republicans passed just prior to the November election.

The Senate is expected to take up its own earmark rules very shortly. That body did pass an earmarks measure last year that was not approved by the House. Sponsors of the new legislation hope to strengthen that measure before it is voted upon. President Bush has said he is hopeful of bipartisan agreement. He has said that earmarks divert funds from vital measures to "wasteful pork-barrel projects."

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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