Today congressional Republicans are contemplating presenting a united front against earmarks. For a long time, I’ve viewed the campaign against earmarks as misguided. They represent about 1 percent of federal spending, making them a minuscule part of government growth. Eliminating them all wouldn’t even directly reduce any spending, it would merely affect how the spending is disbursed. It’s not clear that government spending controlled by unaccountable bureaucrats would be less wasteful. Attacking the log-rolling that is central to the legislative process seemed like barking at the moon.
A better approach to the earmarks issue, I’ve always argued, is to use them to demonstrate the absurdity of much of what government does and defeat much larger spending bills. My favorite example is the Clinton-era crime bill. Many conservatives argued against that piece of legislation, which contained billions of dollars in new social spending, on the basis of midnight basketball. Use midnight basketball to defeat the crime bill. Don’t take midnight basketball out of the bill and declare victory.
Having said all that, I think the time has come for the Republicans to adopt a moratorium on earmarks. It is simply a threshold issue for fiscal credibility. How many times have we heard that Republicans are taking a bold stand on this or that spending bill only to learn that they requested better than 40 percent of the earmarks? If Republicans have their names next to too many pork barrel projects, they will never be trusted to rein in more serious spending programs like entitlements. House Minority Leader John Boehner is right to try to put his party’s image on spending above the needs of his appropriators. We’ll see how it all pans out.