We all know that old line about the permanence of death and taxes. Up until now, a third term might have been added on: "earmarks," the word describing the age-old congressional practice of loading up appropriations bills — and every other kind of bill, for that matter — with last-minute spending projects that in theory benefit the folks back home and in practice benefit the congressional member who can claim credit for them at election time.

Sometimes earmarks have been sneaked in; at other times they've been wedged in, a favorite practice of some lawmakers being the loading up of military appropriations bills — hard for most members to vote against — not only with defense-related boondoggles but with ad hoc locally directed appropriations that have nothing whatsoever to do with the military.

The all-time grand-champion earmarker may have been the late Senator Robert Byrd, whose eloquence on foreign-policy issues in recent years almost obscured his earlier fame in having located so many pork-barrel projects in his native West Virginia as almost to make that state a satellite station of the federal government.

And for all their perennial election-year rhetoric about cutting spending, Republicans in Congress have been as notorious as Democrats in making sure their districts or states got their fair share of earmarks.

How could it be otherwise, when most long-term members of Congress have traditionally earned their seniority not by ideological purity or flights of rhetoric but by being able to show tangible take-home results to the voters?

Well, now we've had a few elections in a row in which the term-limits zealots and the ideologues have been able to gain enough traction in Congress to erode the time-honored practice. When Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, an earmarker par excellence, gave in this week and said he, too, would vote for a moratorium on the practice, that seemed to sound the death knell on earmarks.

But note: A moratorium is, by definition, a temporary cessation of something or other. For those of you holding your breath, this one may not last as long as the next exhalation ... er, election.

Luttrell's Wish List

In an address to members of the Memphis Rotary Club this week, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell outlined the four areas in which he hopes to make the greatest progress.

They were the expected ones of public safety, education, and economic development — plus one which he made seem most urgent of all, especially in the wake of a defeated referendum on consolidation. As Luttrell expressed it, "We need to get all local agencies and officials working in harmony together."

As obvious as that desideratum would seem, the county's mayor told the Rotarians it had been mind-boggling and heart-breaking over the years for him to see the in-fighting and backbiting that goes on behind the scenes of local government.

One remedy he suggested: Do away with partisan elections for county government, so that people are encouraged not to vote "for the D or R after a candidate's name" — almost a guarantee of bickering to come — but for the quality of the candidate.

That's on our wish list, too.

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