Alaska editorial: Congress deserves praise for reforms

Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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Recent congressional earmark reforms fall short of the changes advocated by the more extreme critics, but the new rules should help reduce the suspicion generated by these special-interest set-asides without eliminating the legitimate role of Congress in guiding federal spending.

Alaska has been a prime beneficiary of federal earmarks in recent years. It would be difficult to find a person who hasn't benefited in one way or another from items inserted by our congressional delegation.

Those insertions come at a cost, obviously. We all pay for them. The net benefits or costs to the taxpayers vary across the nation as some members of Congress rise and fall in authority and ability to generate sympathy among their colleagues.

Alaska has had a good ride recently, benefiting from our delegation's seniority and its ability to convince colleagues that the state lags behind the rest of the nation in basic, federally funded infrastructure and services.

At root, earmarks are not an evil thing. As Sen. Ted Stevens has often noted, Congress, not the administration, has the power of the purse under the U.S. Constitution. To outlaw all congressional direction would turn over the budget to the administration, a thought that critics of the current chief executive ought to keep in mind before they also demand a blanket ban on earmarks.

To be sure, members of Congress during the past decade have undermined the legitimacy of their power by greatly increasing the amount of money they direct to specific entities and efforts, some of which are beyond frivolous. Groups such as the Citizens Against Government Waste, which released its annual "Pig Book" last week, provide a worthwhile service when they illuminate the more ridiculous items.

The earmarking process naturally generates suspicion. People wonder why some groups get tax money. Are friendships, campaign contributions, political alliances or even kickbacks involved?

Pushed by reformers, the House and Senate have approved rules that should both allay some of these suspicions and discourage the more questionable earmarks in the future.

The rules require that any earmarks in bills be accompanied by information about which member of Congress has requested the language and who it will benefit. This is not so momentous a reform as some might claim - most members of Congress are happy to take credit for earmarks. Still, members are less eager to take credit for earmarks they obtain for interests outside their districts, so the provision will be useful to cast light on such items.

The rules also require a justification statement for each earmark. Again, while many members of Congress willingly provide such information already, this new requirement should help illuminate the more mysterious items.

Already, these rules are forcing congressional committees this month to disclose information they have always held in secret.

The new House and Senate rules differ in one significant respect, unfortunately. The House rule allows conference committees, which form to reconcile differences between House and Senate bills, to create entirely new legislation that has passed neither chamber of Congress. The Senate rule prohibits such new items. It might seem that the Senate rule would be enough to stop these middle-of-the-night earmarks, but such rules are only enforced if someone asks that they be enforced when the legislation hits the floor for a vote. The House rule doesn't allow House members to ask for such enforcement.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address, called for an end to earmarks, especially those that are found not in bills that he signs but in the accompanying informal "reports." "I did not sign them into law. Yet they are treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice," Bush said.

It's not time to end the practice, which provides important protection for small states such as Alaska. It is time to illuminate the process, and Congress has taken some good steps toward that goal.



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