The Tea Party movement has scored an early success with the incoming 112th Congress, winning support from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and others to put a moratorium on earmarks, the reviled appropriations for projects targeted to a specific entity without competition for the funds. But the move could also mark the beginning of a painful and potentially politically damaging exercise for lawmakers determined to control federal spending.
It's easy to ridicule many of the projects, as well as the lawmakers who seek them out and approve them. The so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska is the most derided of the projects, although it was never built, and Congress canceled the earmark for the proposed Gravina Island project. But the stampede to ban earmarks is all about appeasing still-angry voters and would do little to get at the real problem of a spiraling federal deficit and debt.
Earmarks comprise a decreasing part of the federal budget—about $15.9 billion in the current fiscal year—and account for less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget, and just slightly more than 1 percent of the federal deficit. McConnell's declaration this week that he would support a ban on earmarks (though he has received them for his state in the past) was welcomed by President Obama and celebrated by Tea Party movement followers as a step toward fiscal sanity. A step it is, indeed, although it's so small as to be nearly insignificant fiscally. It would be like trying to deal with a foreclosure threat by giving up three-times-a-week lattes at your local, overpriced coffee seller: what you really need to do is sell the house you could never afford and move someplace smaller.
Where were the Hill's deficit hawks when Congress was voting to launch an extensive, expensive war in Iraq? Or creating an entirely new federal agency? Or adding another federal entitlement program to Medicare without coming up with a way to pay for it? Where are they now, when professed fiscal conservatives are insisting that the tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans are extended?
But banning earmarks isn't really about fiscal policy; it's about delivering a voter-appeasing message meant more for campaigns than serious legislating. If the newly-emboldened congressional conservatives don't move from earmarks to tackling the truly tough choices—including entitlements, tax cuts and defense spending—they won't have much to show voters in 2012.