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Published: Wednesday, 3/17/2010

Corrupting influence

THE recent decision by Democrats in the House of Representatives to end the practice of earmarking money in budget bills for contracts to for-profit companies should be praised.

Since the Democrats control the House, it doesn't matter, except politically, what Republicans think. The Senate, unfortunately, remains opposed to the change. Its members are apparently less sensitive to growing public disapproval of earmarks.

On its face, an earmark sounds harmless. A House member or senator will insert language in a bill that directs a government contract be given to a particular company. The fiscal 2010 budget included more than 1,000 earmarks - no-bid, noncompete contracts - for private firms. It may be that the recipient company is in the legislator's district, so he or she will, in effect, be bringing home the bacon to constituents, with the idea that the action will be remembered by voters in future elections.

One problem is that the contract earmarked for the company is frequently preceded or followed by a sizable political contribution to the lawmaker from a political action committee or individual connected to the firm.

Unfortunately, the happy relationship between the company and the legislator is funded by the taxpayers - even though the company may not, in fact, be the most capable supplier of the product or service purchased with federal dollars.

The question of which firms get the contracts has frequently been determined by politics, not merit.

Some members of Congress have gotten first slice at the pie, based on seniority or position in Congress. Second dibs go to members of the majority party facing difficult re-elections, who need to be seen delivering to their districts so they can hold onto their jobs.

While House earmarks to for-profit companies have been abolished, lawmakers still will be able to give them to nonprofits and municipalities. Even so, the ending of private earmarks should be applauded.

The public's interest should be better served, and the corrupting relationship between campaign contributions and federal contracts for companies should be disrupted, if not eliminated.

That is change, and unequivocal reform. The Senate should go along.


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