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Earmarks - now you see them, now you don't in the new federal budget

WASHINGTON - Congress has passed a $463.5 billion spending bill that will finance government spending on domestic programs through Sept. 30, up to the beginning of fiscal year 2008 on Oct. 1. In the meantime, it will work on finalizing the FY '08 federal budget.

After much wrangling between Democrats and Republicans, final Senate approval averted a partial shutdown of the federal government that would have occurred Feb. 15 if Congress had not been able to deliver a 2007 budget for the president's signature.

As part of an effort to rein in and reform the disposition of ''earmarks'' while still completing its work on the unfinished FY '07 budget leftover from last year's Republican-majority Congress, the current Congress has simply rolled most of the funding for ''earmarks'' into federal agency budgets. Earmarks have not been defined to anyone's satisfaction - ordinarily they benefit specific projects in the home states of the lawmakers who designate them, but funding for many programs of national reach have been reassigned to federal agency budgets. Programs seeking the earmarks inserted for them into appropriations committee reports have been advised, throughout Washington, to work with federal agencies. The word among Capitol Hill senior staff members and lobbyists is that organizations in good standing with the federal agencies in their subject areas will have a better chance of getting funded by the appropriations formerly known as earmarks.

But agency decisions will be made by mid-March, and many will be finalized before then. So in the last analysis, said several senior Capitol Hill staff members and lobbyists on condition of anonymity, it's helpful for organizations to have already begun making their cases for funding to federal agencies.

The renewed emphasis on agency discretion in federal funding qualifies as a form of ''deja vu all over again,'' as the saying goes. Earmarks were not at all prominent in the federal budget of 30 and 35 years ago. Lawmakers began to favor them as a way of getting the upper hand over ''agency discretion.'' That is, having appropriated funds for highly specific purposes, lawmakers lost patience with recalcitrant federal bureaucracies that gave ''agency discretion'' as their reason for spending the funds in another way. By inserting specific earmarks into the federal budget, lawmakers could nullify agency discretion and directly fulfill specific funding purposes. Under the earmarking system, congressional discretion left as little as possible to agency discretion.

Few doubt that congressional members got carried away with earmarking over the years, providing favor to in-state projects that paid off not only in terms of public welfare, but also in publicity and good will for the congressional member. Depending on definitions, the number of earmarks approached 15,000 in the last Congress.

Funding for them is now where it began, scattered among federal agencies. In FY '08, earmarks are expected to show up again under their old name, but also under regulations meant to end the abuses of the recent past.