Those fiscally tough Democrats

Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd is known as the "king of pork." That's for the bacon he brings home to West Virginians, carved from a largely secretive budgeting process in Congress called earmarking. Now, thankfully, he's laying aside his scepter.

Or at least temporarily. Mr. Byrd, who is the new Senate appropriations chair, and his Democratic counterpart in the House have declared an earmark moratorium on a pile of leftover spending bills that the GOP-led Congress failed to pass last year. Until the process is made more transparent and accountable, there'll be no earmark projects for the next budget year either, they say.

The moratorium serves two purposes for the newly empowered Democrats. At a time of high deficits, it can help divert spending to more popular items on their agenda. And it adds credibility to their pledge of fiscal responsibility.

Earmarks can fund useful if narrow projects in parts of the US. But they have gotten way out of hand, ballooning in number from 4,146 ($20.4 billion) in fiscal year 1994 to 15,818 ($40.8 billion) in fiscal year 2005. Like mushrooms, they flourish in the dark. They're often tacked onto spending bills late at night and with no debate. Many aren't even identified by location or congressional sponsor. The current set-up has invited corruption, waste, and political coercion.

Democrats also want President Bush to fund war costs through the regular budgeting process, instead of using emergency bills that get little scrutiny. But this isn't their desire only. Last month, bipartisan budget leaders in the Senate made the case to Mr. Bush in a letter, as did the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report.

Emergency spending bills make sense in the early, unpredictable stages of a war, but the administration is now more than five years into the war on terrorism. The size and increase of costs demand the oversight, specificity, and planning of the normal budget process. The Vietnam and Korean wars eventually went this route, and so should the war costs of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Democrats, however, may be painting themselves into a deficit corner. They want to return to the "pay-as-you-go" budgeting of the Clinton era, when new expenditures had to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases. Democratic budget leaders in the Senate hope to balance the budget by 2012.

These are sound goals, but can they accommodate the Democrats' spending plans? Their to-do list includes some expensive items, such as halving the interest rate on student loans and extending the expiring middle-class tax cuts.

They've got little to work with. Mandatory outlays, such as Social Security, take up two-thirds of the budget, and are increasing. Military expenditures are also rising. That leaves less than 20 percent, and shrinking, for everything else.

Democrats are on the right fiscal track. But they may need to pare down their list or reconsider their balanced-budget goal. The deficit is just under 2 percent of gross domestic product – historically low. Looked at that way, they may have a bit of wiggle room, but not for long. The first baby boomer will qualify for Social Security in 2008 and for Medicare in 2011. Then the entitlement demands will take off.

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