Friday, February 16, 2007

Earmark discipline

You want a Congressional achievement? Here's one.

The spending bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday contains not one shred of new pork. And the bill is not accompanied by a report, which in the past is how many earmarks found their way into the budget.

It's not that simple, of course. Sen. Tom Coburn charges that the bill still contains between $11 billion and $17 billion in hidden earmarks, and there apparently is a growing campaign to keep funding previous earmarks. And Congress has not yet done away with narrowly targeted tax breaks that by some measures cost up to three times as much as earmarks.

But even $17 billion is better than the $64 billion in earmarks that was larded into the budget bills that died with the 109th Congress. That cut dwarfs Bush's call to cut the number and value of earmarks in half. And while keeping previous earmarks alive is odious, at least Congress isn't adding more to the pile.

Even better, the White House is doing more than talking about earmark reform. The Office of Management and Budget has ordered federal agencies to ignore earmarks that are not written into law. That would appear, in one fell swoop, to solve the problem of hiding earmarks in reports, as well as eliminating the pressure to keep funding previous years' earmarks.

A previous OMB memo carefully defined earmarks and made rules for cataloging them, making them that much harder to hide.

Both are moves the administration could have made any time in the past six years, so let's mute the applause a little bit. And it's executive branch policy, not law, so it's rescindable at any time. But give credit where credit is due: it's a powerful and practical move that plugs the holes in Congress' earmark rules. I'll take this sort of hypocrisy any day.

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