Pork lives: Murtha and the Democrats must reform earmarks

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One congressman's pork is another's key project, and in the end taxpayers pay for everything. In a nation with a $248 billion budget deficit, all of that spending had better be worth it. But it's not.

Many of the federal dollars spent in a congressional district arrive courtesy of a Senate or House member with substantial seniority or a less-veteran lawmaker who was able to get an earmark slipped into an appropriations bill.

Earmarks are those spending items on local projects that get added without debate, evaluation or sometimes even notice. The non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste reported that, while lawmakers tacked on 546 earmarks worth $3.1 billion to the appropriations bills of 1991, the practice has exploded since, with the 2006 bills carrying 9,963 projects costing $29 billion. There oughta be a law.

Unfortunately, congressional earmarks are an equal-opportunity budget abuser, with Democrats as well as Republicans taking advantage. Last year the heat was on the GOP, which controlled both houses of Congress, for not reining in such free-wheeling spending. Now the onus is on the Democrats, who said they would bring reform once they won a majority. They got their majority, but reform seems elusive.

One Democrat who knows how to work the system is Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown. A report in Sunday's Post-Gazette by Washington correspondent Jerome L. Sherman showed how Mr. Murtha, now in his 17th term and chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, has become a master at delivering military and other contracts to his district. Some of the spending brings jobs, while some of the job promises fall short. Sometimes old friends benefit from the work -- friends and contacts who contribute to the Murtha campaign war chest.

While we have praised the Marine reservist for speaking out against the Iraq war, it's hard to heap accolades on someone who is not using his stature to reduce the number of earmarks and make the process transparent.

Reformers in both parties have proposed, for starters, that lawmakers' names publicly appear next to any earmarks they attach to a spending bill. That's a good first step, one that Democratic leaders have begun to take.

But if their majority is truly intended to chart a new course, Democrats must also strike a blow against the sheer use of earmarks and the continuation of pork-barrel politics. Seven months into the new regime, however, it looks like the same-old, same-old.


Correction/Clarification: (Published July 18, 2007) This editorial as originally published July 17, 2007 incorrectly stated that Democratic leaders in the U.S. House had not yet begun to include in legislation the names of sponsors next to their earmarks. Representatives' names are now being listed.


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