House Republicans unilaterally decided last week to give up earmarks for at least one year. With this simple step, they demonstrated to voters that they deserve to win back the congressional majority. Now it's time for Senate Republicans to do the same.
Earmarks represent the worst aspect of the parochial politics that have bankrupted this country. By abusing their power over the public purse strings, members of Congress buy their own re-election with earmarks. Voters tend to like the shiny new projects brought home into their districts; they don't always realize that sharing the burden of multimillion-dollar pet projects for more than 500 members ends up being more expensive than simply taking care of their own needs with local funds.
For example, Rep. Charlie Melancon, Louisiana Democrat, put in a request last year to send $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars to the Institute for Seafood Studies in Thibodaux. It's not clear why money should be taken from taxpayers in Michigan and Montana for redistribution to researchers intent on making Filet-O-Fish more tasty. Nonetheless, when the House's top earmark foe, Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, attempted to strip a more modest $325,000 appropriation from the institute, his move was crushed by a 124-303 vote.
Fortunately for taxpayers, Mr. Flake was more successful in persuading his Republican colleagues as a group to disarm themselves from pork - and seafood. While we remain skeptical on how long the party can keep itself from the politician's crack pipe, congressmen who no longer need to defend their personal pork requests are going to be free to vote against outrageous and indefensible projects. Closer votes on such issues will help define the difference between the political parties.
So far, House Democrats have agreed only to ban earmarks aimed at for-profit defense firms. While positive, it's a half-measure that looks weak in comparison to the minority's uncompromised position.
Likewise, Senate Republicans may find it more difficult to defend the pork-barreling that their House colleagues have given up.
Saddled with $12.6 trillion in debt, the public is growing increasingly less comfortable with the profligate, business-as-usual ways of Washington. The current minority leader - Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican - stands a much better chance of becoming majority leader if he can prove to voters that his party really stands for conservative fiscal principles. He should start by dropping his own earmarks.