- - Thursday, April 24, 2014

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin is upset. The $3.5 trillion that Congress spends each year is just chicken feed, and Mr. Durbin is a fan of pork. He wants Congress to get a bigger barrel.

Pork is the currency of Congress, and the earmark is the way the pork is delivered. The congressional leadership — Republicans and Democrats alike — use pork to bribe their members to vote for a lot of things when they know better.

Approval for a $50 million indoor rain forest in Iowa, for example, is slipped into an unrelated piece of legislation, and $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, N.C., or a $100,000 grant to the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Every member of Congress relishes the ribbon-cutting ceremony where he will be honored as the hometown hero who brought home the bacon, in the form of, say, an overpass over a freeway. He might even get to assign a federal contract to a generous campaign donor.

Only a handful of federal policymakers see earmarks for what they are: a corrupting influence in Congress forcing taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on programs that are wasteful and unnecessary, all at the expense of something actually worthy and useful.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, calls earmarks “the gateway drug to spending addiction in Congress.” In 2008, responding to pressure from taxpayers, Mr. Coburn led a mostly successful effort to temporarily suspend earmarking. The moratorium, which applies to all legislation except the defense-appropriations bill, has been extended several times, to the dismay of big-spending liberals and even a few conservatives.

The earmarks in the defense-spending bill demonstrate just how pernicious the problem could become if the plague of earmarks is allowed to return. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance counts 186 earmarks, with a price tag of more than $7.1 billion, in the current defense bill.

Worthy as support for historically black colleges and universities, funding for research into Lou Gehrig’s disease, or money to cure ovarian cancer may be, such causes have nothing to do with military spending.

Mr. Durbin last week called this kind of spending “the glue that held everybody together, Democrats and Republicans, working for a common goal.” The “common goal” that the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat refers to, of course, is a larger, more expensive government.

Mr. Durbin says that he has already made the pitch for his earmark revival to President Obama. If the president agrees to help Mr. Durbin — and why wouldn’t he? — the president could add to the string of his broken promises.

In his State of the Union speech three years ago, Mr. Obama said he would veto any “bill that comes to my desk with earmarks inside,” because “the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects.”

That was then, of course, and this is now, and Mr. Obama breaks promises more frequently than Lindsay Lohan goes into rehab, and we shouldn’t hold a collective breath until he does what he said he would do.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, on the other hand, has so far been a principled opponent of the practice, refusing to set aside pork even for his own congressional district. On April 21, he signaled his opposition to the Durbin scheme, tweeting, “[The] earmark ban has helped us cut waste & restore transparency. It stays.”

The speaker has it right. Even with the loopholes, the earmark ban is helping to hold the line on spending. It’s understandable that Mr. Durbin, reading the polls, is worried about the re-election prospects of certain of his Democratic colleagues. But the way to improve their prospects is to do what Mr. Obama said he would do — kill the earmarks and send the little pigs home.

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