And the first showdown between Tea Party Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, and Sen. Mitch McConnell's establishment goes to... the teas! McConnell has dropped his opposition to a proposed Republican earmark ban. Is this a good thing?
A lot of things people say about earmarks are bullshit. Most importantly, earmarks in and of themselves account for a full zero dollars in annual spending. To "earmark" something is for a legislator to flag money that will be appropriated anyway for specific projects in his or her home district. If appropriations money isn't earmarked — and most, like 99% of it, isn't — it goes to agencies and departments that allocate grants based on
comically arbitrary whims a proposal's competitive merit. About $10 to $20 billion a year in appropriations is earmarked by legislators. Earmarks are different from "pork," a term regular people use to describe appropriations they think are stupid. "I consider that project you earmarked for to be pork," one senator might say to another. "I consider that project I earmarked for to be excellent and provide jobs in my district, which gets me re-elected, so shut the fuck up," the other might respond.
Earmarks can be helpful. They're a currency congressional leaders use to move pieces of legislation that members of Congress are too scared to vote for. This why Jim DeMint wants to ban them! We're going to have even more gridlock with this ban, and Republicans are going to be even more resolute in voting down every spending bill — uncontroversial, continuity-of-government ones! — just to mess with Barack Obama.
But an enormous part of Washington's lobbyist community is devoted to the appropriations process and winning earmarks for clients. Want to educate yourself about the inner workings of Washington? The Washington Post ran the longest newspaper serial I've ever seen a few years ago — long articles every day for like six weeks! — just about the one guy who pioneered the earmark lobbying business. He has plenty of company now, and they're not happy with Jim DeMint, and now Mitch McConnell. Democrats will probably have to institute a ban of their own soon.
So why not? Ban 'em for the next year or two, and see if anything about Washington process changes. Our bet is that they won't — big donors will always find a way to get a return on their investments. But that's okay. It's a fine time to experiment.
But remember, the act of "banning earmarks" will not save a single cent! It was so annoying when John McCain kept saying in 2008 that he'd balance the budget within three years by "banning earmarks." That was such a sad lie. That guy is the worst.
[Image of McConnell via Getty]