The outrageous abuse of earmarks in recent years has led to proposals to ban earmarks altogether. It was a promise on the lips of every Tea Party candidate and many others. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader in the Senate, today signed onto the idea, reversing his previous position.
There is a reason for earmarks and it is one you have not seen described much in the media or in campaign addresses. It is that when elected officials pass laws on subjects that affect their constituencies--say, Kentucky, Mitch McConnell's state--there is no assurance that the bureaucrats who manage the subsequent program or law will pay any attention to what the legislators intended. What counts later is the language of the legislation and the amount of money allocated to it.
Therefore, to make sure that the supposedly a-political civil servants (who, in reality, may have agendas of their own) don't undermine the views of the originators of legislation, members of Congress sometimes attach language that describes the use to which it will be put. That language often is designed to apply to a specific locale or function; e.g., "horse breeding in a state known for grassy landscapes, temperate climate and famous racetracks." When the bureaucrats try to assign a program aimed at Kentucky to, say, Alaska, they will hear forcefully from Sen. McConnell.
You get the idea. Earmarks are sometimes a valid way that Congress responds to the express desires of at least some of the people and to prevent over-bearing direction by an intermediary bureaucracy.
The concern is legitimate. But the reforming mood of the Tea Party rightly objects to rampant earmark abuses and will not tolerate equivocation or compromise now. It's hard, once you have overdone earmarks, to say you'll be more responsible in the future.
In any event, Sen. McConnell finally got the point that this is a loser politically. There will be angry Chambers of Commerce in Lexington (or Des Moines or Fresno) from now on when a hard fought bill is twisted into something else upon implementation. Well, yes, but that is later, not now.
Right now, the overwhelming need is to reduce federal spending and put the economy back on an even keel. Even efforts to improve government's performance of those tasks that the Constitution and US history traditionally have assigned to it (roads, bridges and canals, to use an example) may have to wait a while. Either that, of members of Congress will have to find other ways to give force to their intentions.
So Sen. McConnell was wise to shift his position on earmarks. One just hopes that he is able to require that both parties follow the no earmark rule. Otherwise, his caucus is going to become very frustrated to see the federal spending proceed exactly as before, only now snapped up entirely by Democrats.