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Editorial: Small Symbol

The Senate’s vote Tuesday to continue Congressional earmarks sets up a fascinating legislative and political dynamic inasmuch as the House’s new Republican majority and the Senate GOP minority are determined to forgo them, at least temporarily.

The legislative issue is, are Republicans serious enough about the matter that they’ll try to block any bill containing district- or state-specific spending measures? And the political issue is, will the attention focused on earmarks during the 2010 elections, notably by the tea party movement, sustain itself into 2012?

If it does, Senate Democrats presumably will suffer, given that all but six of them voted to sustain earmarking — including all top Senate leaders — along with just eight Republicans, two of whom are retiring.

But we hope that by 2012, the whole issue of banning earmarks will be seen as it was described by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when he reversed himself on it under conservative pressure — “small,” “symbolic” and temporary.

After all, earmarks last year amounted to just $16 billion, when the 2010 federal deficit is estimated at $1.3 trillion and the federal debt is $10 trillion. 

We suspect — we hope — that the 112th Congress and the Obama administration will be judged far more on their ability to bring those numbers under control than on just banning earmarks. The debt currently represents 67 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and, according to numerous projections, is due to rise to unprecedented levels over the coming decades.

President Barack Obama’s decision to freeze the wages of federal workers — saving $5 billion a year — is even smaller and more symbolic than an earmark ban would be.

Larger, but still not adequate, is the GOP idea of reducing domestic discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels. That category represents just 15 percent of overall federal spending.

In 2012, we hope Congress and the administration will be judged on how they respond to the challenge laid down by the co-chairmen of Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. 

We won’t take sides on the specific policies they recommended, or those of various commission members and other panels, but it occurs to us that, along with addressing federal spending, Congress needs to reduce $1.1 trillion a year in “tax expenditures,” which Simpson recently described as “tax earmarks.”

If it’s to bring down deficits, Congress needs to adopt new budget procedures, such as those recommended recently by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, including multiyear targets and automatic trigger mechanisms to enforce discipline.

There’s no question that misuse of earmarks has created scandal and embarrassment for Congress, but they ought not be permanently banned. And we doubt they will be.

Members of Congress are elected to represent their districts and states and they may well have reason to overrule the priorities of executive branch decision-makers. 

Regardless of whether a moratorium is imposed over the next two years, the earmark system should be reformed to be transparent and subjected to strict oversight.

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