March 11th, 2009
01:40 PM ET
14 years ago

Back to the future in the battle over earmarks

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Yesterday, the Senate passed a $410 billion spending bill for the remainder of this fiscal year. The bill includes nearly 9,000 earmarks."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - If you paid any attention to last year's presidential campaign, John McCain's stinging Wednesday attack on President Obama over earmarks probably sounded familiar.

Just minutes after the president called for reform of the much-maligned federal earmarking process by having Congress and the White House embrace a new set of guiding principles, his one-time presidential opponent took aim at his comments.

"The President's rhetoric is impressive, but his statement affirms we will continue to do business as usual in Washington regarding earmarks in appropriations legislation," McCain said in a statement released by his office Wednesday. "The President could have resolved this issue in one statement – no more unauthorized pork barrel projects – and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed."

Yesterday, the Senate passed a $410 billion spending bill for the remainder of this fiscal year. The bill includes nearly 9,000 earmarks, in which funding is designated for particular projects, often at the request of individual lawmakers, to benefit their state or district.

Obama said Wednesday that he would sign the current spending bill, but that future earmarks should "have a legitimate and worthy purpose."

It's language that could have been cribbed from any of McCain's fall stump speeches.

"I'm going to make government live on a budget just like you do, and I promise you this will veto every single pork barrel bill that comes across my desk," said McCain on the campaign trail the day before the election. "I will make them famous. You will know their names. I will make them famous. Don't think that earmarking isn't a corrupting influence - it is. My friends, we are going to clean up the mess in Washington," It's a message he used quite often during the closing months of the battle for the White House.

The two candidates clashed over earmarks at the first presidential debate in Mississippi, and again at the third and final debate, held in New York State.

"Sen. Obama has asked for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel ear mark projects, including $3 million for an overhead projector in a planetarium in his home town. We'll cut out all the pork," said McCain at the debate in Hofstra, New York on October 15.

Obama dismissed that charge as campaign posturing. "Sen. McCain talks a lot about earmarks. That's one of the centerpieces of his campaign," he responded. "Earmarks account for one half of 1 percent of the total budget. There's no doubt the financial budget needs reform, but it's not going to solve the problem."

As Democratic presidential nominee, Obama never joined his Republican opponent in calling for a complete ban on all earmarks, calling instead for reform of the process.

"We're going to have to fundamentally change how our appropriations process works," Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview on October 30.

But the battle over earmarks wasn't a major factor this cycle – if it were, McCain might be sitting in the White House right now. "Polls indicate that Americans don't like earmarks and would support a ban on them," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "But McCain's attack on earmarks didn't change the perception that Obama was going to bring change to the country, and McCain and Obama were seen as equally able to stand up to special interests."

Filed under: John McCain • President Obama
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Jennifer NY

    Earmarks are not all bad. Some will give people work, or keep people in work....people working, pay taxes and buy things. The news media is creating a lot of anger over everything – Obama is not fixing the economy fast enough, earmarks, pitting people against each other....I am disgusted with the news media.

    March 11, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  2. Adam in College

    If anyone actually listened to Obama during the campaign they would have realized he talks out of both sides of his mouth (not that McCain was any better). So much for "line by line" rhetoric... I can't wait to see him blame the straw men once this fails... and it will because the economic multiplier does not work, it never has. Take as much money as you can from the rich and you will discover that soon your boss cannot afford to keep you employed and you will become a serf to the government. Because unlike the private sector, the government does not worry about losing money.

    March 11, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  3. Joe

    Perhaps I should run for President in 2012! I seem to be the only person in this country who is willing to speak his mind without regards to political correctness or the feelings of the ignorant.
    The economy is in the toilet people. Earmarks have there place in the political system but for now the Congress needs to be focused on the economy, not on water parks or airports in their respective districts. Fixing the nations infrastructure is fine but does little to fix the credit lock down! If the United Auto Workers don't want to agree to a pay cut, then let GM fold. Toyota or Honda or some other manufacturer will swoop in and pick it up on the cheap. Banks are going to have to be allowed to fold as well, they got us into this mess and have no desire to get us out. Stop throwing money at them. If it means we go into a depression than so be it. Eventually we will come out of it and when we do we won't owe China 5 trillion dollars! As it stands right now, thousands of homes are being purchased by companies in Australia, china, UAE, and others. Do we want it to get to the point where our country has a huge "For Sale" sign on it?
    My message to the Congress and to the White House: Fix it now or step aside and let someone else do it!

    March 11, 2009 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  4. w.l. jones

    They can call it earmark or listenup so long people working they will buy thing which in turn worker have to produce more product. This is what I were told stumilate the economic.

    March 11, 2009 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  5. Jackie in Dallas

    Repeat after me: earmarks are not necessarily evil. Some are necessary, in fact.

    Common misunderstanding is that earmarks add to the budget. They do NOT. They simple state that specific amounts of money already budgeted go to a specific project. The US Geological Survey, a branch of the Department of the Interior, has an earmark that a specific amount of its budget be allocated to replacing equipment used for monitoring volcanos. It simply means that instead of the budget for the Department of the Interior being strictly at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior, that small amount must be used for that specific purpose.

    All this hoopla about earmarks, in particular from Senator McCain, is just a diversionary effort. There were more than 14,000 earmarks in the last budget bill under President Bush; this budget has 9,000. Looks like a reduction to me. But the big ticket items in the budget, like for Defense, usually don't have earmarks, because those parts of the budget are kept under wraps. We don't know where it goes, other than occasionally reading about $50,000 toilets! Yes, there are some bad earmarks, there just to make money for a specific company or for a tiny part of the country (Bridge to Nowhere jumps to mind), and THOSE I'd like to see cut, but it won't change the overall budget, guys. It just means the responsible head of the government agency will have more money for their discretionary spending.

    March 11, 2009 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  6. no corporate politics

    @ Jennifer – "Earmarks are not all bad. "

    No they are not all bad. Some are great. And as a liberal/independent voter, I like the general liberal nature of Obama's ideas. However I am suspicious because he said there were no earmarks or waste in a speech when we all know there are earmarks waste.

    This follows a pattern of saying something outrageous and opposite of what we can all see. That is called a lie.

    I am not campaigning – when he is campaigning.
    I am bringing home the troops – when he will send them somewhere
    I am bi-partisan – when the voting is totally partisan
    I am for oversight of Wall St. – when he took huge donations from them
    I am not taking "lobby" money – when he took corporate donations

    Question Authority.

    March 11, 2009 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  7. linus, Chicago

    The President doesn't put earmarks into legislation, Congress does, and the President doesn't (and shouldn't) have a line-item veto. So the only recourse Obama would have is vetoing the entire bill. The programs he is trying to enact are controversial enough already, so if the legislation he wants gets through Congress and onto his desk, should he veto it just because less than 1% of the cost is allocated to earmarks? Of course not.

    March 11, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  8. thomas

    Is there any chance that any of this "earmark" money will find it's way to the poor, the unemployed, and the disposessed people who are pleading for help?

    March 11, 2009 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  9. Dittohead

    jennifer from NY probably loved the media when they were all over the bush adminstration for every little thing.

    March 11, 2009 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  10. tyree

    Please tell me... Why isnt anyone questioning the senators and representatives who put this crap in the budget? Where are they today? Are they showing there faces? Blame the president... What about all of these hypocritical senators who voted against the bill who are still getting there earmarks? How does this fall on President Obama? He needs Congress to help with his extremely ambitious agenda. Its the wrong time to pick a fight with these folks.

    March 11, 2009 09:58 pm at 9:58 pm |