In the fight to control government spending, earmarking seems to be all the rage. Earmarking accounts for a small percentage of overall spending, so eliminating it wouldn't do much to slay the monster that our federal government has become. Still, every bit counts.
In case you don't know, an earmark is also known as pork barrel spending, or pork. An earmark is an appropriation that a government-certified thief (congressman) inserts into a spending bill for a project in his home district. It could be a new highway, bike path, or gnat research. Such projects are often (illegally) slipped into bills during conference committees, with no opportunity for discussion or debate.
Why do Congressmen earmark? The standard response is that they do so to win reelection. They need to show the voters that they are "bringing home the bacon," and so buy their constituents' votes. The only problem with this theory is that there is no evidence for it.
Sure, you may be able to find a congressman here or there who was helped out by earmarking. But congressmen who engage in little or no earmarking get reelected just as much as those who do. When Congress has failed to pass a budget in time for the election, almost everyone has still gotten reelected. The worst earmarkers (Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, Don Young, Jerry Lewis, David Obey) are almost invariably in safe districts, and have no need to earmark to win reelection.
How many people really base their votes on earmarks, anyways? The occasional highway expansion may help out a bit. But does anyone say, "Without my Congressman, the National Teapot Museum would not have come into being. That man will get my vote!"
If reelection doesn't explain earmarking, what does? Earmarking is how Congress exercises power. At this point, George Orwell's all-too-prescient 1984 is particularly insightful.
There is a famous scene in which Winston Smith asks O'Brien why the party oppresses people. He imagines that they think it is for their own good. O'Brien responds that it is an existential expression of power. The party has power over the masses. The only way to know that they have it is to use it. Thus they rape, kill, torture, and terrorize. He describes the future as "a boot stamping on a human face forever."
And so it is with earmarking. For the moment, at least, Congress can't kill people on a whim. The next best thing is to take their money and waste it for fun. There's no larger purpose. It's how they express power.
Power still corrupts, and absolute power still corrupts absolutely.