Why all the fuss about earmarks?

A small part of the spending bill turned into a big issue, despite the fact that some critics had included earmarks of their own.

Topics: Barack Obama, War Room, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,

On Wednesday, President Obama signed what he described as an “imperfect” omnibus spending bill, which carries a $410 billion price tag. The signing was coupled with an announcement intended to pacify the legions of lawmakers who’ve been crying out about the supposedly wasteful earmarks it contains: Reforms are on the way.

It’s a welcome development. But what’s with all the fanfare? True, the bill contains around 8,500 earmarks, for a total of roughly $8 billion. True, that’s a little more than double the entire gross domestic product of Eritrea, and true, with the kind of debt the U.S. government is currently carrying, it’d be nice if it would at least try to spend prudently. But veto the bill? Let’s keep things in perspective here: As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pointed out in a spirited op-ed for USA Today, all those nasty earmarks only represented about two percent of all the spending in the bill.

Besides, earmarks shouldn’t necessarily be demonized in the first place. Admittedly, they can be a source of “waste and fraud and abuse,” as Obama acknowledged in his remarks Wednesday. Plus, nobody wants pork barrel spending that benefits only politicians and corporate interests, and certainly those corporate interests shouldn’t take precedence over the general public. But earmarks serve an important function as well. Scream about “pork” if you want, but members of Congress are, in theory, supposed to be serving the people who elected them, and many of the projects funded through earmarks are important locally, whether it’s because they provide needed infrastructure, fund research for a problem plaguing the area or just create a few construction jobs.

Of course, there’s no denying that there have been plenty of examples of the kind of earmarks that have made this issue the tempest in a teapot it’s become. (The “Bridge to Nowhere” ring any bells?) Some regulation to rein in members of Congress who pull that kind of stunt is undoubtedly needed, and that’s what Obama intends to do. As he put it:

I recognize that Congress has the power of the purse, and as a former Senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. They should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities. But leadership requires setting an example, and the magnitude of the economic crisis we face requires responsibility on all our parts.

Still, Obama has been treading lightly on this one. He campaigned against earmarks, and has been rightly called out for his waning commitment to that crusade since he took office. But the reality is that Congress had to get some sort of budget passed, and the president had to accommodate the likes of Hoyer, an outspoken critic of the reforms, as well as the lawmakers from both parties who were inveighing against the bill.

With any luck, though, we won’t need to hear about earmarks for a little while, because in a peculiar — if not particularly surprising — twist, it turns out that some of the senators who voted against the bill on account of the pork it contained were busy cooking it up themselves. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., managed to squeeze in earmarks worth $2.7 million; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., brought home $51 million and $53 million, respectively. In fact, of the 35 who voted against the legislation on Tuesday night, 28 had earmarks in it.

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