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Much Ado About Earmarks: What Will The GOP's Ban Actually Do?

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In many ways, the battle will now simply shift to what exactly counts as an earmark.

For instance, noted earmark opponent Rep. Michele Bachmann told the Star-Tribune yesterday that "advocating for transportation projects for one's district in my mind does not equate to an earmark."

The proposed earmark moratorium that Senate Republicans will vote on today would essentially be enforced only through politics -- it has no real force of law. It's similar to the ban adopted by the House GOP, which, according to Steve Ellis at Taxpayers for Common Sense, is pretty comprehensive all told. Only four members of the House GOP caucus earmarked after their caucus moratorium, despite the fact that any of them could have.

"I don't know what the enforcement mechanisms might be," Ellis, who's an advocate of the ban, said of the expected Senate GOP moratorium. "But I would imagine that all would go along."

Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (OK) and DeMint are expected to try and pass a ban with the force of law behind it through the Senate as well. Past attempts to do that have failed on the Senate floor.

Still, according to the experts and advocates I talked to over the past couple days, the symbolism of banning earmarking -- even if it's non-binding with plenty of loopholes -- cannot be denied. Americans have come to consider them the scourge of the budget process, the worst in Congressional corruption. But when it comes to actually doing something serious to save the country from financial ruin, they say ending earmarking will have little or nothing to do with getting the federal budget back on track.

"There are many people in this country who think that getting rid of deficits means getting rid of earmarks," sighed James Horney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "In reality it has very little to do with deficit reduction."

Horney's logic is simple: earmarking, he says, is generally used to direct money Congress already thinks it should be spending on things like bridges and scientific research. Get rid of earmarks and you don't kill the spending, you just divert it somewhere else.

"What really needs to happen is we need to have a really serious debate about what's important for the federal government to do," Horney told me.

Democrats and Obama have already taken strides to reform earmarking, and House Republicans under soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner have voluntarily banned the practice in their ranks.

"I don't think there's any evidence that it has reduced the amount of spending," Horney told me. "It comes down to how you allocate specific funding to specific programs and I don't think that reducing or reforming earmarks will do very much to change that."

Even advocates of the earmark ban, like Ellis, agree that ending the practice will not be the end to reckless government spending.

"A moratorium is a means to end," Ellis said. Still, he was much more excited about the potential of a ban to really change things than Horney was.

"It will save billions," he said. "Not one-for-one to be sure, but significant sums of cash."

Ellis says Congress builds in extra funds to appropriations bills in anticipation of money being earmarked away from legislative priorities. Eliminating earmarking would in turn eliminate the need for that extra cash, he said.

"Also, in some cases a less important project with a powerful backer will get more funding than a critical project in a freshman's district," he said. "There is an opportunity cost to that as well. Money that is wasted on one lawmaker's boondoggle isn't available for other more pressing national priorities."

To be sure, Ellis says his group is "very excited about this brave new world without earmarks." (That's not going to happen entirely, of course: Democrats have shown little interest in banning earmarking, and they're still in the Senate majority.) But Ellis also told me that a ban will probably just require spending reform advocates like him to keep an even closer eye on what happens in Congress.

"Of course there will be efforts to evade and game the system -- whatever it is," Ellis told me. "But then we have got to ramp up efforts to expose and stop it."

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