The off-again/on-again love affair with earmarks

THE OFF-AGAIN/ON-AGAIN LOVE AFFAIR WITH EARMARKS…. Periodically, the political world’s obsession with earmarks becomes fashionable. The word itself is, at least in some corners, synonymous with “waste” and “abuse.” John McCain’s presidential campaign made it seem as if the elimination of earmarks — which represents a tiny fraction of the federal budget — would single-handedly restore fiscal responsibility to Washington.

Indeed, this year, House Republicans announced a self-imposed, one-year moratorium on earmarks, in which all GOP members were supposed to prove their commitment to spending cuts by forswearing the nasty buggers.

In reality, some House Republican requested earmarks anyway. And next year, if there’s a GOP majority, the moratorium against earmarks will be over.

House Republicans have banked on voter anger, a sputtering economy and an unpopular president to propel them ahead of Democrats in the polls so far this year.

But now they’re trying to lay the foundation for how they would actually govern.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said a House GOP majority will focus on aggressive oversight of the Obama administration, will work to defund the agencies responsible for implementing health care and will push a “zero tolerance” ethics policy. He also said Republicans may roll back their ban on earmarks, as long as the spending items have “merit.”

Oh, I see. Good earmarks are fine. It’s those bad ones Republicans will frown upon.

The larger significance is appreciating just hollow the GOP’s anti-earmark rhetoric really is. Right-wing Senate candidate Ken Buck (R) in Colorado is basing much of his campaign on his opposition to pork-barrel spending, and he’s even pledged to refuse earmarks if elected. But this is the same Buck who “has requested at least $5 million in earmarks and grants” for taxpayer-financed projects in the county where’s he’s been a prosecutor.

Sam Stein reports today on several similar situations with other high-profile Republican candidates.

The right-wing Club for Growth, responding to Republicans’ new-found tolerance for earmarks, posted an angry item on its blog: “So now they think they can take back the majority and revert to their old ways and everything will be lovey dovey with the conservative base? Think again.”

To be clear, I don’t much care either way — earmarks are not, by definition, wasteful or abusive, and the right’s preoccupation with the subject is pretty silly.

But the right should start realizing now that Republicans probably aren’t serious about their own rhetoric on this.