Capitol Rind

Each year, a watchdog group called Citizens Against Government Waste blows the whistle on members of Congress for indulging in a semisecretive Capitol Hill ritual - padding legislation with pet projects for a lawmaker's district or state.

It's a needed warning.

One would think that in a time of deficits, Congress would be wary of stuffing bills with dubious projects. Apparently not - the waste-watchers' 2003 list is the longest and costliest yet. The group reports a record $22.5 billion for 9,362 pet projects, hidden in 13 appropriations bills - 11 of which were lumped together and passed in a whopping 1,500-page omnibus spending bill in February.

Tacked onto the bill for supplemental war funding is $110 million earmarked for an agricultural research station in Iowa, for instance. Other examples: $21 million for a New Mexico observatory; $25 million for the International Fund for Ireland; $6.2 million for wood-utilization research; $1 million for a DNA study of Montana bears; and $500,000 each for catfish health in Mississippi and the International Coffee Organization.

Congress must end its practice of bypassing regular procedures to quietly lard spending bills with extraneous projects. It's popular with members who want to bring home the bacon, but it's wasteful and distorts national priorities.

If a House or Senate member has a legitimate need to fund a project in his or her district or state, that request should pass the same muster as any other. Such projects should undergo public debate and pass or fail, in committee or on the floor, on their individual merits.

That would go a long way toward trimming all that fat.

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