Earmark games in Washington

It's time once again for a new round of Pin the Tail on the Porker, a game Congress plays every time an appropriations bill comes along. The rules are simple: Rail about wasteful earmarks your colleagues (preferably from the other party) are inserting into spending bills, while trying to avoid getting poked in the posterior for your own piggy ways.

The squealing has reached a crescendo as the Senate prepares to approve a $410-billion omnibus spending bill to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year, a bill that the last Congress deferred. Though it contains a significant shift in priorities and controversially hikes spending by 8.3% over last year, the aspect of the bill that has captured the most attention is its earmarks. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, there are more than 8,500 of them, accounting for $7.7 billion.

Since Republicans became the minority party, they have become newly rededicated to trimming fat from the budget. Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried and failed to strip earmarks from the spending bill. Now he's demanding that President Obama veto it; House Republican leaders, meanwhile, held a closed-door meeting last week to debate whether to propose a moratorium on earmarks. Their timing is a little suspect -- during the years Republicans controlled Congress, earmarks soared to record levels. Many Democrats who used to take joy in pointing that out are strangely silent on the issue now that they're in charge, including Obama, who is hardly living up to his campaign rhetoric on fighting wasteful earmarks.

In 2007, both the House and the Senate approved reforms requiring that lawmakers publicly disclose their earmarks. Judging from the amount of pork in the latest spending bill, that hasn't been terribly effective -- but it's a start.

Earmarks, which are inserted into spending bills without the usual committee review, don't always amount to wasteful pork. It's not hard to decide whether a bridge to nowhere is a worthwhile project, but such clear examples of abuse get a great deal of attention because they're relatively rare. It's much harder to determine whether an educational program in Missouri or a museum expansion in Los Angeles is really something taxpayers should be funding. That's why blanket moratoriums aren't necessarily the best approach. It's better to open the books to scrutiny and let the public decide whether an individual earmark is wasteful or unnecessary.

Transparency has unquestionably improved, but more could be done. Various measures in both houses would increase scrutiny of lobbyists and campaign contributors who benefit from earmarks, and impose other disclosure requirements. Lawmakers should stop wallowing in mudslinging over earmarks and get on with approving such worthwhile reforms.