U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint may not have succeeded in blocking the multitude of earmarks in the omnibus spending bill passed last week by Congress. But at least the public now will know who sponsored them.
DeMint, a Greenville Republican, has made earmarks -- those funding bills slipped quietly into larger appropriations -- his signature issue. It has been a lonely battle.
Even many of those who are sympathetic to DeMint's cause are reluctant to disavow earmarks altogether. They argue that, as long as this is the way the game is played, they feel a duty to secure their share of federal money for the home district and their constituents.
All four Republican House members from South Carolina -- Reps. Joe Wilson, Bob Inglis, Henry Brown and Gresham Barrett -- voted against the $555 million appropriations bill for 2008. But each of the congressmen earlier had requested or supported many of the 26 earmarks containing money for the Palmetto State.
Securing federal pork for the folks back home is an entrenched part of doing business in Washington, and DeMint has his work cut out for him in trying to change old habits. President Bush, though he signed the spending bill, lamented that it contained 9,800 earmarks.
DeMint noted that the earmarked projects, which his aides painstakingly separated from the bill, take up 696 pages, or about one-fifth of the printed bill. And, as in the past, many of those projects, such as a prison museum, a sailing school and a museum at the site of the Woodstock concert, seem absurdly out of whack.
But at least the public now can find out who sponsors the earmarks. In the past, most of the measures were slipped anonymously into larger spending bills.
Now, thanks in large part to legislation pushed by DeMint, the earmarks and their sponsors can be found online. DeMint last year was successful in adding a clause to an ethics bill that required full transparency and advance Internet notice for earmark requests.
Should the practice of including earmarks in spending bills be banned? Supporters argue that members of Congress have a responsibility to look after the best interests of their constituents. And if they don't, the money will go to someone else's district. Others argue that if members of Congress don't tend to funding priorities, the vacuum would be filled by well-connected lobbyists and well-paid grant writers.
But if the institution of earmarks is to continue, the public at least should be able to find out who is behind them and where the money is going. Thanks to DeMint's crusade, Congress at least has progressed that far.