It would be nice if Washington could reduce the burden of debt it is imposing on future generations just by combating pork-barrel spending. But it can't. Any plausible deficit-reduction strategy will require Republicans to accept higher taxes and Democrats to accept limits on entitlements for the elderly, whose costs will consume an unsustainable share of federal spending over time.
Earmarks may be Washington at its worst, but earmark reform increasingly looks like the same thing. It allows politicians to suggest they are seriously confronting the deficit while supporting unaffordable tax cuts that deepen the deficit.
Earmark reform would fit well in an overall bipartisan plan to return the budget to balance. But a crusade against pork can't substitute for a genuine deficit-reduction strategy that uses all the tools required for the job. If Bush and Congress pretend otherwise, pork-busting will become not an act of leadership but its opposite -- an excuse for avoiding the real decisions that fiscal sanity demands.
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' website at: www.latimes.com/brownstein.