Showdown: McConnell quietly campaigning against DeMint’s earmark ban

I’m surprised. The usual argument against anti-earmark measures is that they’re essentially meaningless, which is true: Earmarks are a tiny percentage of the annual federal budget, a vanishingly small fiscal burden to bear compared to, say, nondiscretionary spending. But the porky stench of pols funneling taxpayer money to their home districts to buy influence is so foul that stuff like this necessarily makes for fantastic retail politics. It’s basically a symbolic battle against waste, in other words, with DeMint wanting to signal to Republican voters that the new GOP is serious about spending and McConnell fretting that if they don’t keep the pork coming, voters will hold it against them in 2012. Given that we’re exactly one week removed from the election and endless GOP stump speeches about “learning our lesson,” it’s worth letting DeMint win this one, no?

While McConnell is not demanding that rank-and-file Republican senators vote against the earmark ban, he’s laying out his concerns that eliminating earmarks would effectively cede Congress’ spending authority to the White House while not making a real dent in the $1 trillion-plus budget deficit. And McConnell is signaling his concern about the awkward politics of the situation: even if the DeMint moratorium passes, Republican senators could push for earmarks, given that the plan is nonbinding and non-enforceable

DeMint on Tuesday released a list of 10 other Republican senators who back his proposal, including Cornyn, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Enzi of Wyoming — along with Sens.-elect Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire…

McConnell’s heightened activity signals what Senate insiders say is real fear among senior members — that the DeMint plan actually stands a serious chance of passing. And that could have uncomfortable implications for a bloc of GOP senators — like McConnell, a member of the Appropriations Committee — who annually send hundreds of millions of dollars for projects in their home states…

Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, one of the most conservative senators and an unabashed earmarker, plans a blitz on conservative talk radio to make the case that critics have demagogued the earmark issue in order to make their political points that they’re out to reform the excesses of Congress.

“They should quit worrying about this phony issue,” Inhofe told POLITICO, singling out DeMint, Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain criticism, saying the trio have taken aim at earmarks because it’s a “huge political plus” for them.

The Republican caucus will vote on it — by secret ballot — next Tuesday, and no one’s sure yet what to expect. Cornyn’s also pushing a balanced-budget amendment, which will almost surely pass if only so that they have some political cover with the base in case DeMint’s measure is defeated. Again, the fact that the resolution’s nonbinding and that tea partiers like DeMint will continue to speak out against earmarks anyway means that there’s virtually nothing to be gained by McConnell in opposing the measure. He’s still going to infuriate the base if he continues to earmark; he simply won’t be in technical violation of any “sense of the caucus” resolution if he does it. In fact, Rand Paul has already reminded his supporters that he’ll have no problem demanding Kentucky’s fair share of pork so long as it’s appropriated through normal procedural means, not snuck into a bill at the last moment. Which is yet another reminder that this is mainly a symbolic measure, so why not get behind it? Especially since opposing this measure is apt to intensify calls for McConnell to be replaced as minority leader — possibly with Jim DeMint. I don’t get it.

Update: Rand Paul’s team is now claiming that his comments on earmarks were misinterpreted. They seems perfectly clear to me, but judge for yourself.

Update: A much better argument against obsessing over earmarks, I think, is that it sucks congressional attention away from truly meaningful spending cuts to entitlements or defense. (Inhofe alludes to this in the quoted bit above.) But there’s basically only one guy in Congress at the moment willing to talk about that big-picture perspective, and it sure as heck ain’t Mitch McConnell.