Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is correct when he describes a moratorium on earmarks in the federal budget as "symbolic."
We're not so sure, though, that McConnell and the Tea Partiers, to whom he acquiesced, are correct about the message from the election.
McConnell protected his leadership post and averted an embarrassing showdown with other Republicans, including Sen.-elect Rand Paul, by abandoning his long-held support of earmarks, which he has used to good ends in Kentucky.
McConnell cited the election and said he did not want to be guilty of "ignoring the wishes of the American people."
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It's true earmarks, especially those enacted in the dead of night, have contributed to Congress's crass, self-serving image.
But the message from the election was much broader than ending earmarks or cutting federal spending.
Voters want an end to 10 percent unemployment and jobless recoveries. They are sick of working more and having less to show for it, of being hammered by economic uncertainty, while the Wall Street wizards who sank the economy are making out better than ever.
Ending earmarks will do nothing to create jobs or reverse the galloping inequality that's concentrating more and more of this country's wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
Ending earmarks will do almost nothing to reduce the $1 trillion-plus deficit. Earmarks accounted for about $15.9 billion, less than half a percent, of the last federal budget of $3.6 trillion. By comparison, defense spending accounted for $715 billion and health care (Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program) for $753 billion.
Everyone agrees this country has to deal with the deficit — the amount government has to borrow to make up for the difference between what it brings in through taxes and what it spends.
The deficit has grown because of the Obama administration's spending to avert a full-blown depression and save jobs for teachers, construction and auto workers. But those effects are short-term and will ease when the economy finally improves.
Long-term, the deficit is the product of borrowing money to finance tax cuts under President George W. Bush while waging two wars and creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
McConnell is also right that voters are demanding change. But tax cuts and anything-goes regulation of business, as Republicans want, is not change. If tax cuts and deregulation produced prosperity, the economy would have been soaring, not crashing, two years ago at the end of Bush's term.
It's great news if rejecting earmarks is a sign Republicans are ready to make the hard choices that will be needed to put the economy and federal budget on better footing.
But if, as we suspect, it's just more political posturing, well, Americans should demand more than mere symbolism.