Cutting the budget

Say the word "earmarks" in reference to federal spending, and the hackles of most Americans go up. Most taxpayers regard earmarks as wasteful spending, money that could be put to better use or, better still, eliminated to reduce the nation's deficits and overall debt.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri's junior senator, opposes earmarks. She says lawmakers with the most seniority and plum committee assignments -- like Missouri's senior senator, Kit Bond, grab the biggest share of earmarked spending. McCaskill has not asked for any earmarks since she took office.

McCaskill's position resonates well with taxpayers who see earmarks as just one indicator of what's wrong with runaway federal spending and a bloated federal bureaucracy. But the reality is that earmarks are the whipping boy of excessive government. By one generally accepted definition of an earmark, the Office of Management and Budget figures $16.9 billion was spent on earmarks in fiscal 2008. Taxpayers for Common Sense put the figure at $18.3 billion. Either way, it's 1 to 2 percent of the total budget.

Furthermore, some say spending wouldn't decrease if earmarks were stopped. Those dollars would just be spent on something else. All of which makes a good argument for the line-item veto.