Earmarks

Writing in Slate, John Dickerson takes a look at the weird nature of McCain’s anti-earmarking crusade:

The larger problem with this anti-earmarks strategy is that they don’t amount to much. Earmarks represent just $16 billion of the 2008 budget. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it’s not everything. McCain makes it seem like earmarks are central to the federal government. In Fairfax, he blamed earmarks for high food and gasoline prices and the trouble that many homeowners face in making mortgage payments.

McCain also vowed, as he always does, to make the authors of earmark legislation famous by embarrassing them as a way to cut down on the practice. I wonder. Most earmarks are not ridiculous boondoggle programs. They fund things like schools and hospitals, which are not the kinds of things that their supporters feel embarrassed about. They also fund things like abstinence-education programs (in swing states like Pennsylvania), which many of McCain’s voters favor.

Is Sarah Palin, who promised to be an advocate for special-needs families when she’s in the White House, really going to slash earmarks for special-needs schools? Will McCain really “make the authors famous” when they’re Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Republican allies who support an earmark for services aimed at families with autistic children? If they’re so evil, why not do it in this election year, when Collins is a vulnerable incumbent?

Of course, Dickerson’s problem is that he assumes the John McCain is being serious when he says this/and or he understands what he’s talking about. But any attempt at thinking about the idea critically reveals that at least one of those assumptions has to be false. The facts are, as Dickerson lays out, that earmarks are both a very small amount of federal spending, and generally directed at causes you wouldn’t want to oppose as a national politician. This is why people talk about them in vague terms that sound sort of bad, like “pork” and “earmarks.” If they actually told you what the bulk of earmarks go to, special needs education, infrastrucure programs, school projects, and almost the entirety of our annual aid-to-Israel spending for example, people would generally favor those areas of spending, and maybe even wonder how a national politician could actually oppose it.

What’s more, McCain’s implicit contention that he’s going to “control spending” by eliminating earmarks means that McCain’s either lying through his teeth, or that he has no idea how the federal government works. Kevin Drum explains:

But as long as we’re on the subject, the infamous Bridge to Nowhere is a pretty good example of why this self-righteous nonsense about earmarks is so annoying. It’s true that Congress killed the BtN, but this didn’t save the American taxpayers a nickel. Sarah Palin just took the money and used it for other Alaska projects. And that’s the way all earmarks work: they’re simply ways of directing spending. The actual amount of spending is set elsewhere, and it doesn’t usually change whether or not any of it is earmarked.

The bottom line? John McCain is totally full of crap.