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Published: Friday, 4/6/2007

An earmark that works

THE status of a worthy program in which Ohio Northern University participates illustrates with disheartening clarity the dangers of broad-brush judgments on the value of government or legislative initiatives.

The program is a federal one that offers full scholarships to lawyers from countries where nascent democracies are struggling to take hold. It was established by former Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine last year, and is funded by a $700,000 federal earmark - a mechanism that provides funds for very specific purposes, and is attached to other legislation.

To some, these earmarks constitute pork-barrel spending.

To others, including Dilrabo Djurakulova of Uzbekistan, who enrolled in the program at ONU, they provide an opportunity to sow seeds of freedom and openness in a society where such commodities have been in short supply.

And they represent a conundrum. Earmarks have become synonymous with bridges to nowhere in Alaska, and a whole slew of unnecessary, wasteful pet projects of members of Congress. But some, such as the program introduced by Mr. DeWine, have a commendable purpose.

He makes the salient point that building a democracy goes beyond holding an election. As he says, it's about property rights and ensuring those accused of crimes have a fair trial. It is in these arenas that the lawyers in the ONU program play such an important role.

The mood of Congress today may well be expressed by Sen. Sherrod Brown, who defeated Mr. DeWine in November. He called the earmark process "corrupt" and said "there's not going to be the money to hand out to thousands of groups."

Possibly not, but among the more egregious abuses of the system there are, as noted by Howard Fenton, director of the ONU program, earmarks that underwrite "substantial and meritorious programs."

Mr. Brown would rather funding for worthy projects come through appropriations to agencies and grants.

There's some optimism at ONU that the State Department will come through with money to bring another class of foreign students to learn how to shore up the building blocks of a democratic society.

We hope that optimism is well placed, because it would be an affront if such a valuable initiative were to succumb to the political zeal to eradicate earmarks.

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