I agree with Patrick that earmarks are the most visible symbol. But that's exactly the problem. I don't agree that it's enough for Republicans to fix "symbols" of how we've lost our way. I don't agree that we need to focus on symbols. Yes, we need to fix the abuse of the earmark process by reforming it. But the fact is that not all earmarks can be construed as wasteful spending and not all wasteful spending are in earmarks.
I agree that earmarks are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wasteful spending. Of late, I've also taken a dim view of symbolism as a substitute for policy. But here's the thing.
If we are going to spend $819 billion on an economic stimulus, and a $410 billion omnibus on top of it, the least Congress could do to signal that they are giving up some part of the gravy train is to suspend earmarked spending for the duration of the budget crisis. This is a political winner for Republicans. Republicans didn't have the votes to stop the stimulus or the omnibus, but we could rally public opinion around the idea of cutting off the part of the budget process perceived as the most politically self-serving and corrupt. It's not hundreds of billions of dollars, but it still makes a statement against the idea that the electorate can be bought with government dollars. In a minority situation such as the one we are in, it helps to pick fights we can win in the court of public opinion.
The political case for earmarks rests on the myth that constituents, Republicans and Democrats, want earmarks. In individual cases, this is true. But in the aggregate, polling has shown that the public takes a dim view of the process. And incumbents who do not take earmarks are re-elected at the same rate as incumbents who do.
The trouble with earmarks, beyond just their symbolic importance, is that earmarked spending is inherently recreational in nature. They are mostly for one-off projects that were never funded before, and are often a substitute for private investment -- making each earmark a mini-bailout.
Regardless of price tag, Republicans should not be in the business of defending new and optional spending. It's just not in our DNA as Republicans. One can be a fiscal conservative and support spending on basic public services like police, schools, and roads that are funded year in and year out. If earmarked projects are truly necessary, they should be funded through the ordinary budget process, not through haphazard one-off earmarks.