Citizens Against Government Waste has released its latest Pig Book, an annual ritual designed to make conservatives feel righteous about their disgust for pork even as they continue to send big-spending Republicans back to Washington.

It’s fun to play gotcha, and this year’s numbers don’t disappoint: spending for pet projects rose 337 percent last year. Among the absurd outlays: $7.5 million for grape research; $3 million for shrimp aquaculture; $3 million to “promote character development…through the game of golf”; and $1.6 million to “search for signals of intelligent, extraterrestrial origin.”

Great stuff to club liberals with—if the top three porkers weren’t all Republican senators. And even then, it works better as a talking point than an argument.

In his last State of the Union address, President Bush’s big fiscally conservative play was a vow to veto any appropriations bill that didn’t cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. The next week he sent Congress a record $3.1 trillion budget.

Last year’s earmark total: $17.2 billion. That’s real money anywhere but the Beltway, where it’s just over half a percent of the new federal budget.

Moreover, as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in a smart piece published last year, most of the porkbusters’ reforms are just posing:

A lot of people who cheer on the porkbusters are under the impression that cutting a dollar of earmarks will yield a dollar of budget savings. In most cases, however, “earmarks” are congressional directives that federal agencies spend some of their allotted money in a specified way. If the money isn’t earmarked, the agency is free to spend it as it sees fit.

Little wonder President Bush wants to reign in the practice. Ponnuru continues:

Getting rid of earmarks usually means that the executive branch, rather than Congress, will determine in detail how federal money is spent.

Most conservatives who rail against pork really want to reduce spending and eliminate wasteful programs. And John McCain’s advocacy on this score has persuaded many that he is a small-government man. But anti-earmark symbolism doesn’t cancel the substance of his campaign: two months in Iraq cost as much as a year of pork-barrel spending. Multiply that by a hundred years then try to balance the budget.