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Senate ban on budget earmarks: Can it really work?

Pressure on senators to direct money to their states can be tremendous, whether it's done by budget earmarks or some other way. Appropriations bills are only one avenue to deliver the goods.

By Staff writer / November 17, 2010

Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona speaks at the 2010 meeting of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, Nov. 15. A bipartisan group of four US senators, including John McCain, announced Tuesday that they’ll push for a vote on a plan to ban earmarks.

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters

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A bipartisan group of four US senators announced Tuesday that they’ll push for a vote on a plan to ban earmarks. The lawmakers involved – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Udall of Colorado – want a moratorium on earmarks to go into effect immediately and last at least through 2013.

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“Earmarks are not only wasteful but are terrible distractions for both parties. The sooner we get rid of earmarks the sooner we can go to work on the difficult task of getting our budget under control,” said Senator Coburn in a statement on the group’s effort.

This hands-across-the-aisle move is only the latest in a series of things indicating that earmarks, or pet projects of lawmakers, may be about to end. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, a longtime defender of earmark spending, has switched sides, for instance, and now supports a ban. So does President Obama.

But would a ban on earmarks really work? After all, the pressure on lawmakers to direct federal money to their states can be tremendous.

In the short run an earmark ban, if it passes the House and Senate, would certainly cut back on the practice. The press would give extra scrutiny to appropriations bills to see what they contained – as would lawmakers’ own colleagues, since they would not want someone else to cheat and sneak something through.

But remember, a ban isn’t yet a sure thing – Democrats maintain a bare majority in the Senate, and majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada remains a proponent of the practice.

“I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what is important for Nevada,” Senator Reid said Tuesday.

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