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EDITORIAL: Federal earmarks are on the outs

With voters steaming about government spending and debt, earmarks have become an election year hot potato. House Democrats Wednesday banned those that would go to for-profit companies, a key reform that should curb the worst pay-to-play abuses. Not to be outdone, House Republicans said yesterday that they won't seek earmarks of any kind this year. That also may be good politics, but time will tell if it's good policy.

Lawmakers use earmarks to individually direct money to specific projects or programs. The process is ripe for abuse. So it's good that voters have made their ire clear and managed to sway Washington to change how it does business. Senators should listen up, too. But earmarks aren't inherently bad or wasteful.

Members of Congress know their districts' needs. They should be able to direct small sums to worthy nonprofits without going through the onerous process of getting a line in the federal budget. That flexibility just shouldn't free members to dole out public money without accountability, or as a quid pro quo for campaign contributions. What should also help on that score is the House Appropriations Committee's decision to require audits of at least 5 percent of earmarks, and to provide a one-stop link to members' earmark requests through its Web site.

Earmarks make up $16 billion of the $3.5 trillion the federal government will spend in 2010. Reforms that could cut spending and increase accountability are right on the money. hN


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