It was a dream come true for Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans. They got to make a statement against wasteful spending for the press without having to translate the statement into action.
The Senate on Tuesday rejected a plan that would impose a two-year moratorium on federal earmarking for lawmakers' pet projects, with a handful of Republicans joining with most Democrats to defeat the measure.
Mark my words: McConnell would not have voted for this thing if it had a chance of passing. Even if it's a good political statement, the absence of earmarks would be a great loss of power for Senate leaders, who use the pet projects as bargaining chips to get members of their party to take difficult positions, among other things.
And therein lies one of two meaningful argument against earmarks. In terms of fiscal impact, they are negligible, and often they don't represent an increase in spending at all -- they simply specify the way in which already appropriated money should be spent. In fact, anti-spending guru Ron Paul is an enthusiastic earmarker -- if the money is going to be spent, why not direct it to his district, he reasons.
But the ethical impact could be quite large. A $3 million grant to study Door County cherries means nothing in the context of the federal budget, but it is an extremely effective way for members of Congress to entice campaign contributions or buy the votes of other lawmakers. It was only a few years ago that Rep. Duke Cunningham, who chaired a defense appropriations subcommittee, plead guilty to a mountain's worth of bribery charges stemming from money he steered to defense contractors who repaid him with gifts.
Are earmarks good? It's tough to say. It's easy to see where ethics advocates like Feingold and McCain are coming from in their opposition, but it's unfortunate that the issue as cast as one of fiscal importance (as it was in McCain's presidential campaign).
Furthermore, earmarks are one of the few ways that junior members of Congress, especially in the House, can advocate for their districts. They are not likely to be given responsibility in crafting major legislation, but they can slip small spending projects into bills to make sure that their constituents aren't left out.
Something to notice about the vote breakdown on the amendment: Old-school vs. new school. The Republicans against it were generally old timers like Jim Inhofe, Dick Lugar and Michael Bennett, while the newer, Cable News-oriented Republicans (and some Democrats) supported it. And then of course there's Feingold. But he's a different creature altogether.