The Earmark Ban and the Repercussions That Could Follow

New lawmakers and old alike are being asked to do without earmarks for the foreseeable future, but now that some of the emotion from the election has died down there are questions about banning the practice entirely.

Earmarks are only a fraction of federal spending, but they cause a huge amount of unseemly political jockeying, as one Democratic senator learned when she tried to block one.

Claire McCaskill of Missouri says she wanted to eliminate an earmark from the farm bill - dropped in the bill by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself. "One of my Democratic colleagues came up to me on the floor, got right in my face and said don't ever ask me for an earmark again if you do this," McCaskill recounted.

That was an empty threat to Senator McCaskill, who doesn't seek earmarks. And now, whether they like it not, neither does any Republican lawmaker, because the party imposed a ban on them in Congress.

But now the definition of what constitutes an earmark is coming into play.

Ernest Istook, now of the conservative Heritage Foundation, was a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee. He says an earmark is something that "is in the eye of the beholder" adding, "They are trying to reach some commonality on those definitions. It is a struggle."

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime foe of earmarks, defines it more sinisterly as something slipped into a bill in the dead of night and never considered openly by lawmakers on merits.

The current ban is broad and sweeping, relying on a definition of earmarks as any "congressionally directed spending item."

But some lawmakers protest, saying Congress is supposed to direct spending-- arguing that is, in fact, a constitutional role.

James Inhofe, a conservative Republican Senator from Oklahoma, points to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and says "if it were otherwise, the executive (branch) would possess an unbounded power. Congress is made the guardian of the treasury."

Senator Inhofe and others point to the positive things done by earmarks that Congress will now be barred from doing. For example, money for new F-18 fighter jets, armor to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and unmanned drones.

Many of those actions were aimed at changing parts of the budget the president sends to Congress, which is filled with specific spending items.

But now Republicans are denying themselves a critical tool, and many fear their ban cedes far too much power to the president. In actuality, Republicans have denied themselves a power that Democrats and the White House still plan to exercise.

Ultimately, many Republicans believe the boycott will become less and less workable as Congress wrestles with many spending issues ahead.

"Congress has a job, a constitutional responsibility prioritizing the use of taxpayer money," Istook says. "That means deciding what merits taxpayer money and what doesn't merit it."