One man's mutton is another man's pork. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) annually produces the "Congressional Pig Book" listing earmarks it deems "pork." It includes $148,950 for the Montana Sheep Institute and $188,000 for the Lobster Institute in Maine as examples of 2008 pork. We might be more understanding if this money went to catfish research in Mississippi.

CAGW defines federal spending as pork if it meets any of seven criteria; one being it "serves only a local or special interest." This contrasts with former Senator Trent Lott's quip defining pork as "any government spending north of Memphis."

According to CAGW's report, Mississippi received nearly $450 million in pork earmarks for fiscal year 2008. It criticizes Senator Thad Cochran for securing $1.5 million for a drinking water and wastewater construction project in Flora. It also lists that Cochran funded Ridgeland with $196,880 for wastewater and water quality; and Lott delivered $735,000 for the Madison town square and the Madison County Cultural Center.

Cochran also secured $2.7 million for the Canton Parkway, $1.5 million for I-55/Gluckstadt Interchange improvements, and $392,000 for Canton to transform the high school into a municipal government complex. Without earmarks, these $7 million in Madison County projects would have gone unfunded, or funded in another way, like an increase in local taxes.

So then, philosophically, is it government's role - federal or local - to fund these expenditures? Certainly many earmarks go outside the proper scope of government, but eliminating earmarks will not correct waste and abuse in federal spending. Of the nearly $3 trillion in outlays by the federal government scheduled for 2008, earmarks account for only about $17.2 billion. In other words, the fight over earmarks is a fight over one-half of one-percent of federal spending.

In earmarks we can find disgusting examples of government waste because we can put a name and number to them. By eliminating earmarks we would turn that money over to faceless bureaucrats for nameless programs, insulated from criticism and sunshine. The money might still make it to the target recipients, but it would be shrouded in programmatic red tape and saddled with excessive administrative overhead.

We can make a conservative case for earmarks.

Earmarks are Constitutional. The Constitution vests the power to withdraw funds from the treasury in Congressional appropriations. Eliminating earmarks abdicates legislative direction of those appropriations. If we believe it is best to remove Congressional oversight, then why not pass just one appropriations bill that authorizes the spending of $2.9 trillion and allow the executive to decide how best to spend it? The Founders intended Congress to oversee the spending of taxpayer dollars, and earmarks provide a vehicle for the responsibility.

Earmarks create accountable spending. Conservatives believe better government is more accountable to voters. Earmarks put government funding in the hands of representatives and senators.

Congress requires legislators to sign their name to each earmark request. Earmarks make government spending accountable to voters. Eliminating earmarks would promote abuse by removing the consequences of bad spending from voter oversight.

Earmarks are responsive to local needs. Conservatives believe better government is closer to the people. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, private and public analysts agreed the most important improvement needed for first responders was improved communication. Debriefings after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 echoed those same recommendations. When Smith County Sheriff Charlie Crumpton needed funds to provide interoperability communication technology, he did not have to navigate the 180,000-man Homeland Security bureaucracy. Rep. Chip Pickering secured a $61,100 earmark.

Earmarks are more efficiently used. Conservatives believe smaller government is better than bigger government. Rather than a slow, bulky, overhead-heavy agency spending our tax dollars in Washington DC, we prefer money sent back to states and localities in the form of block grants to be used most efficiently on the local level. Earmarks are little more than legislatively directed block grants.

I believe government is too big: it takes too many of our taxpayer dollars, it immorally wastes those dollars, and when the money should be spent, it does so ineffectively. But the answer to these problems is not the elimination of earmarks which are Constitutional, accountable to voters, responsive to local needs, and used more efficiently by receivers.

One man's pork is another man's catfish.

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs and communications group and serves as executive director of Mississippians For Economic Progress. He can be reached at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms online.