One of Senator McCain's chief rallying cries is his strong opposition to earmarks. Accordingly, I thought it might be useful to discuss what earmarks are and why we should support a President who wants to reduce or even eliminate them.
First, what an earmark actually is depends largely on who you ask. But, generally, they are restrictions placed by Congress on spending that, in essence, steers money towards a particular project.
Earmarks are not necessarily bad. They can be worthy and non wasteful. Many, however, are likely wasteful - wasteful earmarks are what we refer to when we talk about "pork barrel" spending. And earmarks are more likely to be wasteful than if they were spent through a competitive bidding or grant process conducted by the executive branch civil servants because they are awarded based on political pressure rather than merit.
A better way to think of an earmark than the formal definitions offered by government agencies such the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget is to recall our civics 101. After all, Congress has the "power of the purse" but to what detail? $1 billion for national defense is pretty clearly not an earmark. $27,430 for construction of a parking lot at a DoD facility in Fort Worth clearly is. Note that the former is an end - the latter a means.
In short, my own definition of an earmark is the appropriation of funds that specifies the means by which a legitimate government purpose shall be executed (or something like this).
Congress should decide that government should do, and the executive branch should decide the methods. For example, Congress should decided to spend taxpayer money to cure cancer, but the contracts and grants should be made by the executive branch. This is because of their institutional capacities. Congress has the political legitimacy to decide how much to spend and on what ends, and the executive branch has the expertise and disinterestedness to make sure that the money goes to the best suited entities who can perform the research rather than those with the most political power.
An earmark, then, is a violation of this principle. It directs money specifically, sometimes in such a manner that there can only be one recipient.
An earmark in a bill itself is the law of the land, and the President must abide it. Most earmarks though appear in a committee report, however,and are just Congressional "wishes" that an agency feels pressure to comply with (given that it would like more money from Congress in the future). Legally, though, such wishes can be ignored. President Bush directed agencies to ignore such earmarks, which is wise (although he's really late to the party and only started doing so after Congress changed hands to the Democrats).
Yesterday's Politico has a story about how Senator McCain may find eliminating earmarks difficult. The thrust is that even Republican members would revolt if McCain tried to take away what lawmakers call "legislatively directed spending." What it omits however is that these warnings come almost exclusively from members of the Appropriations Committees rather than rank and file members. It's those members who would have the most to lose politically if earmarks were curtialed.
I'd note that even though Senator McCain has been the biggest critic of earmarks, it was Republicans who turned everyday earmarks into the Christmas in Washington the system has become. Democrats came into power in 2006, taking Control of Congress and promisong to fix this, but they quickly changed their tune once elected, so this is a bi-partisan disgrace.
To the degree that the next President can reduce the amount of federal dollars spend pursuant to earmarks or "directed spending," the better.