ONE OF THE MASTERS of pork-barrel politics in Washington is the dean of the Senate Democrats, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Eager to funnel tax dollars back to his state for roads, sewers, clinics and other projects, Byrd has been a tenacious defender of "earmarking" -- the formal term for a lawmaker directing federal money to a pet local project.
That's why it was stunning to hear Byrd, the incoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and his House counterpart, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), announce that they wouldn't support any earmarks for the rest of the fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. All the projects previously approved by either the House or the Senate in nine yet-to-be-completed spending bills -- nearly 10,000 projects costing about $17 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste -- will be dropped.
It's a welcome shift in the way Washington does business, even if it may only be temporary. In a statement released Monday, Byrd and Obey said they would support earmarks again after "a reformed process is put in place," including "new standards for transparency and accountability." Longtime appropriations veterans, Byrd and Obey believe that it's proper for lawmakers to steer funds toward specific projects. But they're also astute enough to recognize how corrupt the process had become and to see the damage it was causing to the institution each has served for more than three decades.
The number of earmarks has grown exponentially over the last two decades, not just in appropriations bills but in authorizing legislation and tax measures. The earmarking process has become routine, with each lawmaker allocated an amount to dole out based on his or her rank. Meanwhile, lobbyists seeking goodies have plied legislators with campaign donations, freebies and perks, creating the appearance of a quid pro quo. In the case of the Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandals, it wasn't just an appearance -- it was real corruption.
The move by Byrd and Obey, which was backed by House and Senate Democratic leaders as well as Republican anti-pork crusaders such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was also a reaction to the near-total breakdown this year in the congressional budget process. Rather than trying to redo the nine unfinished spending bills, it makes more sense to drop earmarks, wrap up the measures quickly and prepare a clean slate of bills.
Ultimately, the test will be how far Congress goes in the name of earmark reform. If lawmakers agree to disclose not only the sponsors of each pet project and tax break but the interest groups that sought them, the lobbyists involved and the campaign donations that flowed, then Byrd and Obey's action will be more than a mere timeout. It will be a watershed moment in the cause of clean government.