For once, efforts by Republicans and Democrats in Congress to one-up each other will be beneficial for taxpayers. After House Democrats moved last week to ban budget earmarks for private companies, Republicans responded by pledging to ban all earmarks, including those to state and local governments. Even the earmark king, Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, is grudgingly coming around. Now the Senate needs to enact a similar ban, and the reforms should be permanent.
Once upon a time, there may have been some justification for earmarks — the pet projects members of Congress slip into the federal budget. The argument was that elected representatives know the needs of their state and district best. But that was trumped long ago by the excesses and the indefensible projects. By one estimate, the House ban on earmarks for for-profit companies would have cut about 1,000 awards worth about $1.7 billion. Such spending based on seniority and political clout sends the wrong message to voters, no matter the worthiness of an individual project.
Nobody has been better at securing earmarks than Young. His 41 earmarks this year were more than any other House member and worth more than $90 million. His total over three years is $323 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. And the Times' Alex Leary reported last month that in this fiscal year more than $10 million in Young earmarks went to defense contractors whose lobbyist is Doug Gregory, a former long-time aide to Young. An ethics panel cleared Young and a half-dozen other House members after investigating the relationship between earmarks secured by another now-closed lobbying firm and campaign contributions. But the perception of a conflict is hard to ignore even for someone with Young's reputation for fairness and integrity.
Young's earmarks have long benefited area defense contractors and other Tampa Bay interests, and he has not been shy about defending the practice. But last week even the veteran congressman acknowledged that change was inevitable. Of course, the earmark ban is a convenient election-year ploy that may wind up being temporary. Yet it is a step in the right direction, and voters should demand that the next Congress not slide backward.