First of all, it is always easier to identify the problem than to solve it, no matter which policy arena you are playing in. But in this case, it’s even hard to identify the problem. Is it that lawmakers get to decide where to spend government money and the process is too subjective? (If not them, would a government bureaucrat know the needs of a district better?) Is it that the private financing of public elections corrupts public officials absolutely (or partially), and so we can’t trust the spending of government money to them because they simply can’t make unbiased decisions? (I kind of think the latter is a big part of the problem if not the whole of it.) Is it because some lawmakers have private investments in companies that might execute the contracts to perform the work designated by earmarks or that they make decisions to benefit their own personal holdings. (See Dennis Hastert.). It’s probably all of the above and more. (See Bill Allison’s frequent blog postings on earmarks.)
Second, proposals for reform have to be realistic. (Yes, they can be idealistic and realistic at the same time.) It is simply not realistic to propose to ban earmarks, I mean, someone has to decide which bridges and roads need to be fixed, which universities are doing great research and need to be supported, which community health clinics deserve government money, and yes too, how many new bombers we need. And while I understand that calling for an earmark ban is useful as an organizing vehicle, as policy it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Who would decide how to spend the money? And even if you suspend my disbelief, a history of reform efforts show us that such a "ban" would most likely drive the spending underground and make it even hard to track how Congress spends taxpayer money. The money will get spent.
Fundamentally, banning earmarks is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s a political point now being made by all those who attempt to represent themselves as populists – faux or real.
Instead, how about full and complete transparency for earmarks: who is requesting them, for what, with lots of details about costs and disclaimers about personal connections by lawmakers, along with a requirement that they all be posted for a minimum of 72 hours online in a downloadable format before they are voted on? We could easily craft such a policy. (No neither the House nor Senate went as far as what needs to be done to get real 21st century style disclosure in their last round of reforms. Minimally this ought to be a first step.