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The public trough

October 20, 2006

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, Jefferson Smith, now that we need you? A naif sent to the U.S. Senate on a fluke in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) discovered that his mentor had slipped a provision into a "deficiency bill" to construct a dam on land secretly purchased by the

home state's political boss. The boss stood to make a killing, and Smith's former hero figured to get a piece of the action.

But Smith would have none of it. He knew graft and corruption when he saw it, so he made a courageous stand, nearly destroying himself in the process and etching into the American psyche a fable so beloved that no member of Congress, out here in the real world, would ever try such a thing.

Instead, Capitol Hill pols are outdoing even the movies with bills and deals that rake in big money for themselves, their families and their political friends.

In one of the latest instances, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is under fire for not reporting part of a complex real estate transaction that led to the sale of some of his Las Vegas property. After a little government land swap here and some rezoning there, Reid received $1.1 million. Now that the deal has made the newspapers, Reid has seen fit to amend his ethics report retroactively.

But Reid has nothing on House Republicans, who appear to be perfecting the art of "earmarking" money in federal spending bills to boost their real estate interests. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) earmarked funds for construction of a parkway near land he owned, which he later sold for a $2-million profit. Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) directed $11.4 million in federal funds to a highway-widening project that just happened to make it easier to get to resort acreage and subdivisions that he owns. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) directed federal money to projects near his Riverside County property that he later sold for about twice the purchase price. Earmarking in another highway bill put $1.28 million to work improving land near a development owned in part by Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar).

Elected officials insist that, in earmarking funds, they are only doing what politicians have done for years: directing pork back to the home district. But that doesn't mean they should be allowed to use the federal purse to do favors for themselves or their political donors and friends who happen to own chunks of land near projects Congress approves.

Earmarking used to be done in virtual secrecy. But the House recently approved a rule drafted by Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) that requires bills and reports to include a list of earmarks and the names of members who sponsored them. It's still not enough. If Congress is to repair its reputation, it must go beyond merely admitting that its members engage in self-dealing. It has to change. Jefferson Smith would demand no less. Neither do we.

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