Senators should file this one under the heading of “you’ve got to start somewhere,” and pass a moratorium on earmarks, the budgetary device that lets members of Congress steer money to pet projects.

It’s not that banning earmarks would save a lot of money – it wouldn’t. They make up less than 1 percent of federal spending and, even if you eliminated all of them permanently, you would barely make a dent in the national debt.

And it’s not that earmark projects are all wasteful pork – they’re not. Many members of Congress know their districts better than bureaucrats in Washington, and are often better positioned to know where a significant local or regional need can be addressed efficiently with a relatively small influx of federal spending.

But earmarks have become a powerful symbol of a broken system of federal spending that goes beyond their actual contribution to the debt, and well-documented cases of earmark abuses make it pointless to fight for what good they may do.

The Republican-led House is poised to ban earmarks and the Democratic-run Senate should too, as Republican leaders (and Maine’s Olympia Snowe) have challenged them to do. Ending this controversial practice quickly would tell the public that Congress is serious about changing its ways.

The problem with earmarks is that they distribute federal funds based not on the value of a certain project, like a bridge or a piece of military equipment, but on the value of the member of Congress who is advocating for it.

So a long-serving senator or representative can bring home the bacon for the folks back home, or distribute accumulated earmarks to less influential colleagues in exchange for a vote or other favor. The quality of the program is beside the point.

Banning earmarks won’t take political influence out of spending decisions: An influential member of Congress will remain influential and people in the bureaucracy will still be subject to political pressure.

But an earmark moratorium would end a debate that has become a distraction from the real drivers of deficit spending.

As long as they don’t stop here, members of Congress should end earmarks and get to work on reducing the nation’s long-term debt.