WHEN IT COMES to earmarks, the District of Columbia is making up for lost time. Just five years ago, these questionable appropriations of public funds didn't occur in the city. Now they are routine. In the past four years, an estimated $98 million in direct grants went to private groups, and the opening tally for next year is approaching $40 million. The groups on the receiving end may well do good work, but until the District reforms its system, taxpayers are right to be suspicious and resentful.
Last year, during the D.C. Council's budget deliberations, it was discussion about whether the Historical Society of Washington should get $500,000 that called attention to earmarks. This year, it's $10 million proposed for Ford's Theatre that is raising eyebrows. Both are examples of appropriations to specific organization made without competition or connection to any specific city program. The proposal to help Ford's Theatre build an education center might well be a sound investment that would further downtown revitalization. Forgive us, though, for wondering how much Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was swayed by an appeal from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), whose wife is a theater trustee. A thoughtful critique of the District's use of earmarks was recently completed at the behest of council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). Not only does it pinpoint the lack of competition and transparency, but it argues that the city often doesn't know what it is getting for the money it spends. The report, by the council's Office of Policy Analysis, says the council needs to abolish the practice or reform the process. There's a strong case for the former; barring that, Mr. Gray should follow through on his stated desire for reforms. This year, he insisted on a public hearing on the earmarks, and he has drafted laudable changes, such as limiting dollar amounts and preventing groups from getting grants every year. It's time this system was fixed or, should we say, unfixed.