Under the Republicans, each lawmaker's pet projects were tacked onto broad spending bills with no competition or review and few questions asked. By last year, so-called earmarks had grown to nearly 14,000, compared with 1,400 in 1995. But a Democratic effort to bring these goodies out of the closet has run wildly awry.
Overwhelmed by more than 30,000 requests from his 434 colleagues, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David R. Obey, effectively has thrown up his hands and refused to even consider them until after House versions of the 13 separate spending bills are approved. At that point, he and his staff alone will sort the worthy from the unworthy, the election-year booty from the lobbyist payoff.
Earnest though Mr. Obey undoubtedly is about making sure there's no funny business afoot, he is ignoring the obvious: The earmark process is hopelessly broken and should be scrapped for good.
Federal lawmakers began decades ago putting little fences around money in agency budgets to direct that it be spent on certain projects, particularly in their districts. They argue they know better than some bureaucrat how the money should be spent. Oh, and P.S., they get some political mileage out of putting out a press release announcing they had "fought" for this largesse.
Such power is corrupting because it allows those of the ilk of former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to take bribes in return for steering work to defense contractors that no one questions. It's also bad management because it favored the judgment of Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski over that of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in creating an oyster recovery partnership that turned out to be a boondoggle for the watermen.
The House voted 280-152 early this year to make the earmarking process far more public, requiring that all lawmakers be identified with their requests and that they certify that neither they nor their families stand to gain financially. But now somebody has to enforce those rules, and the lawmakers' greed has made that all but impossible.
Here's a tip for lawmakers who want to ensure that federal money in their districts is well spent: Pay attention. Checking on what happens to the bacon is every bit as important as bringing it home.