Jonathan Rauch argues that earmarks today "are a model, not a menace":
In the 1980s and 1990s, the once-sequestered system cracked open. The number of earmarks increased by a factor of 25 between 1991 and 2005. Earmarks were often invisible, at least until after they were enacted. "The bill would be passed before people even started digging into what was in there," [Scott] Lilly says. Public outrage swelled.
On its heels, however, came reform, notably in the last couple of years. Every earmark request now must be made public before Congress votes on it. The sponsoring member, the amount and nature of the request, and the name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed. You can find all this stuff online….[M]any congressional offices have formalized the application procedure. Getting an earmark now is a lot like applying for a grant.
As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs. Obsessing about earmarks, indeed, has the perverse, if convenient, effect of distracting the country from its real spending problems, thus substituting indignation for discipline.
Read the whole thing here. Earmarks' critics are right to be vigilant for pork, and—more important—for the logrolling that often accompanies it. But they might want to spare a little more ire for military and entitlement spending.