Human nature is as consistent and unvarying as the rise and fall of the tides. We all believe that we alone are uniquely qualified to make decisions that we wouldn't trust to anyone else. Winning an election (or several) tends to support and solidify that conclusion. Earmarks are a shining example of this human conceit.
In recent days Mitch McConnell and Charles Krauthammer have each made the point that eliminating earmarks "doesn't save any money" but just moves decision making from elected representatives to faceless bureaucrats. In a simplistic and short term sense they are correct. If Congress approves a budget of $1 trillion and the President agrees, then $1 trillion will in fact be spent and the only effect of earmarks is to allow Members of Congress to directly decide where some of the money is used. Long term however, McConnell and Krauthammer are wrong and the reason goes back to human nature.
Consider two scenarios:
1. Senator Foghorn votes to approve the $1 trillion budget even though he knows it contains $200 billion in verifiable waste. He does this because in the bargain he gets a $100 million earmark for a new medical center in his state. Senator Foghorn is willing to in effect raise taxes (every dollar spent is an increase over what would be required in taxes if that dollar was not spent) on his constituents because he knows he will be able to mollify them by pointing to this new medical facility.
2. Senator Foghorn votes to approve the $1 trillion budget, effectively raising his constituent's taxes, even though he can't direct that any funds be spent on his pet project because the decision on where to spend the money will be left up to a faceless bureaucrat.
Its rather obvious that Senator Foghorn is facing radically different stimuli between the two scenarios and that he is correspondingly less likely to vote for excessive spending under the second scenario.
Another way to demonstrate the debilitating nature of earmarks is to compare them to a shot of whiskey for breakfast. Its not the shot of Old Grand-Dad instead of a cup of coffee that harms you, its the fact that anyone who starts the day with whiskey isn't likely to stop there. Earmarks are a symptom of a deadly disease, a symptom of a culture of spending that if not reversed will bankrupt our nation in the next few years. In an atmosphere where billions of dollars get tossed around like so many grains of sand, its not surprising that representatives begin to lose touch with reality and commonsense.
It is concerning that Mitch McConnell has chosen to make an "inside the Beltway" argument on an issue where the citizens have voiced a bipartisan consensus that runs the other way. It hearkens back to the House banking scandal of 20 years or so ago. Yes, it wasn't really an actual bank and when they got around to it all the Congressmen made good on their debts, but it was still an arrogant way for "public servants" to conducts their affairs and it was a symptom of a much larger problem.
If Republicans are to recapture the faith of the American people they will have to leave behind their mushy past and begin to defend the public fisc from big spenders of both parties.