They're the law: Get used to it

Five months ago Democrats took over Congress supposedly to rescue it from a Republican "culture of corruption." Now they sound like George Raft in "I'm the Law." "It's time to put on your long pants and grow up," California's George Miller declared on Tuesday after Democrats declined to enforce ethics rules on one of their own.

By long pants, Miller apparently meant that grown-ups should get with the program of committee potentate Jack Murtha. In case you missed it, Murtha had some words the previous week with Michigan's Mike Rogers, a Republican who had proposed striking a $23 million "earmark" funding a National Drug Intelligence Center in Murtha's district.

Federal audits had found the center to be ineffective and duplicative, but when Rogers proposed sending that $23 million somewhere else, Murtha was unamused. "I hope you don't have any earmarks in the defense appropriations bills," Murtha told him, "because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever." This sort of threat was supposed to have gone out with Tom DeLay, as the new Democratic majority banned the bullying in their ethics workbook as Rule 16. But faced with the choice between reprimanding him or reneging on their election mantras, House Democrats opted to back Jack. The no-reprimand vote broke along party lines, with a mere two Democrats saying the issue "deserved debate or a referral to the Ethics Committee." Murtha is a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee, a position from which he can easily reward and punish members who don't support his pork barrel agenda. His job just got easier too, thanks to Appropriations Chairman David Obey. On Tuesday, Obey announced he will hold back earmarks in appropriations bills until they get to the conference report. That means less transparency and sunshine for the earmarking process, but too bad. "I don't give a damn if people criticize me or not," Obey said.

The practice of "airdropping" earmarks into conference reports was a huge issue in the last Congress, when Democrats complained fiercely about last minute drop-ins. The Senate earmarking bill had a provision to help take care of this, but the legislation stalled in the House. In the meantime, the procedure now being organized by Obey will ensure that frisky House backbenchers can't pick on special projects like, oh, say, a $23 million boondoggle in Pennsylvania.

Obey says he's just doing what's best for the committee. What a mensch. As the chairman knows, the change means less air time for the earmarks, and makes them harder to shoot down on the House floor, where they have at least been up for discussion in recent years. Public outrage at projects like the famous bridge to nowhere has proven to be the best weapon against pork-barrel extravagance.

But now that they're all grown up, Democrats want to enjoy the spending prerogatives of the majority. Earmarks for everyone!

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