Senate Republicans are expected to vote on the conference's earmark policy next Tuesday or Wednesday, with South Carolina's Jim DeMint leading the charge.
Will the earmarks ban pass? And, if it does, what can it mean for the future of pork?
Earmarks, which have made up less than one percent of the federal budget (still, over $15 billion), have been consistently vilified by fiscal hawks. They're local or state funding requests made by individual lawmakers for their home districts, often directed to specific companies, guiding federal dollars for construction or defense spending and circumventing the bidding process handles by administrative-branch bureaucrats. They can be used to secure votes (as we saw, sort of, when Medicare funding was to be doled out to Nebraska as Sen. Ben Nelson was on the fence over health care), and they give tremendous power to the Appropriations Committee members who control which funding requests make it into a final appropriations bill.
Earmarks are getting a lot of attention right now, mostly because a wave, or a tsunami, or a whitecap of fiscal conservatives have just been elected to Congress, promising to spend less, lower taxes, and balance the budget. But they don't want to take away Medicare or Social Security benefits, so earmarks are the only element of federal spending that all of them can agree, at this point, should be cut.