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Phony Earmark Debate Comes to Predictably Phony Head

The fact that Senate Republicans have begun to fracture over something as inconsequential as earmarks, which don’t cost the federal government a dime, and govern not how money is spent but where it gets appropriated, shows you the level of seriousness in the conservative movement. Even the progenitors of the crusade against earmarks admit that their cause is symbolic more than determinative. And when you actually pin them down on it, they’ll admit to you that the pursuit of earmarks is actually a free market pursuit:

Father and son, age 47, have different styles. Asked what he wanted to do in Washington in a Wednesday morning television interview, the senator-elect said that his kids were hoping to meet the Obama girls. He has made other concessions to the mainstream. He now avoids his dad’s talk of shuttering the Federal Reserve and abolishing the income tax. In a bigger shift from his campaign pledge to end earmarks, he tells me that they are a bad “symbol” of easy spending but that he will fight for Kentucky’s share of earmarks and federal pork, as long as it’s doled out transparently at the committee level and not parachuted in in the dead of night. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests,” he says.

So you’re not a crazy libertarian? “Not that crazy,” he cracks.

When Kentucky politicians seek earmarks, they’re competing for a finite set of resources for projects that could go to South Carolina or Vermont or Montana or Arizona. There’s a certain information asymmetry here (inclusion on the Appropriations Committee helps) that makes it a not entirely pure market, but it’s as much a market as anything else in cpaitalism. And free marketeers like Rand Paul will not unilaterally disarm from that process. In fact, as this alludes to, Ron Paul is a strong advocate of earmarks, too. That’s how he gets re-elected.

Now, in this case, Paul signed an actual pledge against earmarks. So conservatives may be right to call him out on this. But even as they do, they acknowledge that the debate is entirely symbolic and where a certain appropriation goes does nothing about the level of the appropriation.

So this whole battle for an earmark moratorium is a ridiculous sideshow, designed to whip up a tea party frenzy and completely disassociated from any real debate on deficits or debt. Heck, Rand Paul has signed on to Jim DeMint’s earmark moratorium, and even he’s telling you he doesn’t believe in it.

This is more about raw power between DeMint and Mitch McConnell than anything. McConnell’s maneuvering behind the scenes to defuse this. I’d gather that neither of them give a rat’s ass about earmarks. And as John Cole notes:

Two things about this are awesome. The first is that these guys have so little respect for the tea party that they can’t even wait a week to rub the rube’s noses in it. I mean, it is just great. Every idiot who spent the last year pretending the tea party and the lunatics they had nominated were anything other than the lunatic fringe of the GOP should just be summarily ignored. It’s really one of the greatest cons/re-branding efforts of all times.

Second, I love that the GOP is still so un-serious that earmarks are the hill to die on when it comes to fiscal responsibility. Earmarks are a nothing-burger when it comes to the budget- less than 1% of the federal budget. That’s still big money, but it is nothing when your party ran on a platform of cutting taxes for the rich and re-instating Medicare Advantage and fainting at the notion of defense cuts. Making a big stink about earmarks while supporting all the other irresponsible things the GOP wants to do is akin to ordering four double whoppers for lunch, and then removing the pickles on each, “cuz you’re on a diet!”

True dat.

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David Dayen

David Dayen