Mitch McConnell’s announcement that he would support a ban on earmarks was so fraught with contradictions that it would have been better had he said nothing at all. The GOP Senate leader’s support for a non-binding, two-year moratorium would have turned enough heads without the curious justification that preceded his assent.
McConnell rationalized his own earmark spending:
Make no mistake. I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them. 
Then he minimized the issue:
And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government. 
And then he shifted to partisanship. The jab had validity, given that Republicans find themselves curiously joined with the president on the issue, and less curiously at odds with Democratic legislators and an earmark-friendly Harry Reid (see: Merry Christmas, America! Damn, We Must Have Been Good This Year!) in their support for a moratorium:
… there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight. 
Whether he knew it or not, McConnell’s about-face had been in the works for some time. The Tea Party’s anti-big government stance brought force to Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) crusade against earmarking. The time may not yet be ripe for a real bill, but this was a good opportunity for a gesture. McConnell supported DeMint’s March 2010 one-year earmark moratorium, but voted against an April 2009 effort to turn a presidential earmark reform proposal into law. DeMint’s 2009 amendment included prohibiting the use of earmarks for political favors, and not surprisingly the measure failed by a 28-69 vote. 
The health care bill brought us earmarks that were flaunted so publicly that their pejorative titles became the stuff of political invective, including Ben Nelson’s (R-NE) failed “Cornhusker Kickback,” and Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) “Louisiana Purchase.” The sums involved were not large, given the hundreds of billions we have been tossing about, but this was never a spending issue. This is an ethics issue.
A perpetually-lengthening list of politicians from the president’s home state who have been granted time behind bars to ponder their failed political careers could tell you that over-friendliness with “business as usual” encourages ethical laxity, legal and otherwise. Earmarking is legal, and the law requires disclosure to taxpayers possessing sufficient internet savvy to find the lists of add-ons inserted in legislation. Politicians prefer to shift our attention to the spending side of earmarking, but this is a convenient sidestep that ignores the potential for abuse when earmarks are traded for votes. This is where the problem lies.
While earmark reform will contribute to spending reductions, it would not have prevented the health care bill, the spending in the stimulus, or the bank and automaker bailouts paid for with the TARP. These are policy issues, and unless Washington agrees to a fundamental paradigm shift the spending will continue, and favors will be traded with or without earmarks. A different Congress might have refused to approve the funding for these bills. Without a spending bill, there is nothing in which to add an earmark, and no vote to be bargained for.
Earmarks have been around for a long time, and are so ingrained into how business is done in Washington that a prohibition with teeth is still unlikely, despite the positive press given to the non-binding, GOP-only moratorium. Instead of struggling to ban earmarks, we need to divest them of their power, and the real power of earmarks is the ability to influence votes.
1..Mitch McConnell. McConnell on Earmarks: The People Have Spoken – I’m Listening. Press Release. November 15, 2010.
4..Jim DeMint. U.S. Senator, South Carolina. Senate Rejects Obama’s Modest Earmark Reforms. April 2, 2009.