EARMARKS….Ah, earmarks. Everyone’s favorite whipping boy. John McCain says he’d eliminate ’em. Not cut them back; not reform them; not limit them. Eliminate ’em. There’d not be one red cent for earmarks under a McCain presidency.

So on Wednesday ThinkProgress pointed out that aid to Israel is an earmark. What about that? Naturally, the McCain campaign rushed to backpedal. Of course aid to Israel wouldn’t be cut. Don’t be ridiculous. That earmark is A-OK.

So ThinkProgress went back to the books and pointed out yesterday that about $6 billion in military housing is also allocated as an earmark. What about that, Mr. Support the Troops?

All good fun. But CAP’s Scott Lilly points out that there’s a serious side to this. The reason McCain made himself vulnerable to this needling is because the two most serious studies of the subject suggest that total spending on earmarks is less than $20 billion — and McCain didn’t think that was impressive enough. He needed a bigger number in order to buck up his bona fides as an anti-spending crusader. So he turned to an old CRS report that pegged the earmark number at $52 billion — much better! — but failed to note that it only got there by expanding the definition to include things like aid to Israel, military housing, drug eradication funds for Colombia, assistance programs to Egypt and Jordan, and humanitarian aid to Haiti. Oops.

Now, there’s not much question that earmarking got wildly out of hand in the waning days of the last Republican congress. You can even make a case for eliminating earmarks entirely and leaving detailed budgeting decisions entirely up to the federal bureaucracy. But that’s all that eliminating earmarks would do: move the spending decisions into other hands. It wouldn’t actually reduce spending by a penny.

Personally, I’ve never really seen the harm in allowing members of Congress to have a certain level of influence over allocating federal funds in their states and districts. They’re elected by the people, after all, and part of the whole democracy thing is that they’re supposed to be the ones who have the best sense of what their constituents would like to see their tax dollars spent on. So why not allow them some control? If you keep it both transparent and modest, there’s nothing really all that wrong with it.

Still, if McCain prefers the bureaucracy to have 100% control over budget allocations, that’s fine. But he needs to acknowledge that the true size of all federal earmarks is small (about $18 billion or so) and that earmarks are merely a way of directing spending, not increasing it. Eliminating them won’t save any money, it will just change where the money goes.

That’s not very impressive as a demogogic stump speech, but it has the virtue of being honest. And Mr. Straight Talk shouldn’t have a problem with that, should he?