A lonely but honorable fight

In a speech on politicians and the press, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told a group of journalists that intensive scrutiny was all very well, but from time to time “try to catch us doing something good.”

McCaskill is one of a brave — some would say foolhardy — band of lawmakers who have voluntarily renounced earmarks, or, to use the less polite term, personal pork projects, a popular system for using federal tax dollars to please the people back home.

The earmarks are attached, without scrutiny and often without a vote, to larger spending bills. The White House said last year that more than 11,700 earmarks totaling $16.9 billion got through the system.

Some of the projects were undoubtedly worthwhile, but you do have to wonder why the federal treasury should be opened to fund a teapot museum in North Carolina or a sailing school in California.

Perhaps the best-known and most egregious earmark was the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a $223 million span to connect an Alaskan island with a population of 50 to the mainland a short ferry ride away.

It was attached to a transportation bill, which eventually accumulated 6,371 special projects. The chairman of the House transportation committee was Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

And that’s another problem with earmarks: They disproportionately benefit the powerful and long-serving, who can pretty much dictate what their districts get.

The king of earmarkers is Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., whose district and his supporters got $162 million last year. Murtha is both powerful, chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, and long-serving, 18 terms.

There are periodic calls to reform the abusive earmark process, and it has become moderately more transparent. Reform will take lawmakers willing to give up a free helping hand at winning re-election and risking the wrath of pork-dependent colleagues.

Sen. McCaskill, you’ve been caught doing something good.

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