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EDITORIAL: Earmarks help Congress fund local needs

Earmarks have become code for out-of-control Washington spending and reining them in a battle cry of angry taxpayers. But the reality doesn't live up to the political hype.

Federal spending has outstripped taxpayers' willingness to pay. It should be reined in. But the $15.9 billion this year in earmarks - money directed to local projects by individual lawmakers rather than a bureaucrat or funding formula - is less than 1 percent of the $3.7-trillion federal budget. Eliminating them wouldn't even guarantee that small amount of savings, since the money could be folded into the budget for other uses. Still, resurgent congressional Republicans want to eliminate all earmarks, and President Barack Obama seems amenable.

That's unfortunate. Earmarks serve a useful purpose by giving members of Congress a way to respond to local needs: $200,000 for a guns-, gangs- and heroin-suppression initiative in Suffolk, for instance, and $540,000 in Nassau to help troubled veterans avoid going to prison for nonviolent crimes.

Yes, earmarks are sometimes abused, so they should be closely monitored and the process made as transparent as possible. The current practice of posting funding requests on members' websites, and a decision by House Democrats not to allow earmarks for for-profit businesses, are steps in the right direction. But an outright ban would starve worthy local initiatives and make Washington less nimble in responding to public needs.

That's a lot to sacrifice for such meager savings. hN