Wednesday, October 8, 2008


If you listened to McCain in the first two presidential debates, you would get the impression that the biggest problem facing our national economy is Congressional earmarks. The term refers simply to the ability of Congress to direct spending to specific projects rather than to executive agencies to allocate in their own discretion. Since the Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress, there is nothing inherently abusive about Congress directing spending in the manner it deems fit. Of course, the more specific the spending direction, the more it lends itself to abuse. And that power clearly has been abused. Some of that is just typical horse-trading (you support my hospital and I’ll support your school). But especially during the time Republicans controlled Congress the practice exploded and gave way, at times, to outright bribery. (The problem, of course, is bribery not earmarks per se.)

As Ezra Klein writes:

Like a lot of McCain's posturing, his war on pork makes for good headlines and bad governance. If he were anywhere near as dogmatic on earmarks as he claims to be, it's impossible to imagine him passing any major legislation. Ever. Or voting for any major legislation. Or approving budget bills and spending. Or having a working relationship with Congress. Or getting reelected, as every district in the country finds crucial programs and infrastructure subsidies are being cut.

Meanwhile, whenever the topic turns to earmarks, I always suggest that folks go play around with the Sunlight Foundation's interactive earmarks map. Earmarks
are rarely obviously wasteful. Rather, they're small appropriations that exist
beneath the urgency level that would merit federal consideration. So districts
and states elect individual representatives and one of their side jobs is to push through local priorities. Those priorities may be odd, but relatively few are obviously wasteful. Type in my hometown of Irvine, and the nearest earmark is in Long Beach: $450,000 to outfit the children's hospital. Near to that is Mission Viejo, with $400,000 for the Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care Unity. And a tick over from that is Huntington Beach, which got $50,000 for an afterschool arts education program for low income youth. It's easy to talk about cutting studies on bear DNA. It's a bit harder to explain why you want to cut children's hospitals and afterschool programs. And it's nearly impossible to then say how you're going to pass bills after you do.

[As Klein suggests, check out that interactive earmarks map.]

In the early ‘90’s, before Republicans took control of Congress, the number of earmarks was under 1000 and totaled less than $3 billion. The use of earmarks peaked with the last budget Republicans passed before losing control of Congress in 2006 – at over 14,000 earmarks worth more than $27 billion. Since then, Democrats have cut them by a third – this year they total $18 billion. But let’s put that in context:

[click on image to enlarge]

So that is the focus of McCain’s economic policy.

As it turns out, the Queen of Earmarks is Sarah Palin. According to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Palin hired a Washington lobbyist to secure earmarks for tiny Wasilla, Alaska when she was mayor. The town of 6,715 received nearly $27 million in federal dollars from 2000 to 2003. Alaska has the highest amount of earmarks per capita of any state in the country. As governor of Alaska, Palin requested $198 million in earmarks in next year's federal budget.

She’s good at this stuff. But, then, she should be. She learned from the master himself, the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee when Republicans controlled the Senate, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). She ran his 527 group “Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.” (this is the “independent” political entity that Stevens used to raise unlimited funds from corporate donors).

Stevens is currently standing trial in federal court for bribery. (Because the statute of limitations has run on the bribery charge, Stevens is actually standing trial for failure to disclose gifts. But the underlying offense is bribery.)

How Mavericky!

1 comment:

Bill Liddicoet said...

Here's some fun facts: In 2005 (the latest year available) those rugged individualists in Alaska received $1.84 in Fed expenditures for every dollar paid in Fed tax, ranking it #3 among states in the Federal largess sweepstakes behind genuine have-nots New Mexico and Mississippi. However, not to worry: in terms of per capita Fed expenditures received Alaska was #1 (and has been since 1999), compared to ranking 18th in Fed. taxes paid (despite having the 4th highest per capita income in 2007). Add to that the fact that Alaskans pay no state income tax and receive ol revenue checks from the state in excess of $2,000 per year for every person including children, and Alaskans do real well. In fact, they rank lowest in terms of overall local/state/federal tax burden. Their so-called tax independence day is 25 days earlier than the national average. So I can certainly understand why Palin is upset about taxes, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for her to say "No thanks!" to the $1.84 tax dividend her state gets for every dollar it pays in. And which state, by golly, do you suppose receives the least back for the Fed. taxes it pays? Why New York, of course -- the very state that was the object of Palin's recent scorn, fer shure. This disdain on her part is, I think, fairly typical of any grifter towards a mark or square.
And her taking on the oil companies sure does sound real principled, too, doggone it, as she and her hubby pocket ca. $15K a year in oil company cash pay-outs. You betcha!