3 September 2008

McCain, Palin and the Boondoggles

With the political newswires dominated by running mates and teenage pregnancies it is refreshing that the mainstream media still finds room for talk of run-of-the-mill issues such as earmarks.

Earmarks – the ability of members of congress to sneak claims for large sums of public money for their pet projects into legislations and conference reports – have been a regular theme of John McCain’s stump speeches from his earliest primary election. Or rather his stated opposition to those earmarks which can be labelled as ‘pork barrel’ (i.e. unnecessary), electorally-motivated, spending.

The issue has elbowed its way into the broadsheets not because of a sudden fascination with detailed fiscal policy but rather the sniff of a chance to further question the wisdom of McCain’s choice of VP. In his introduction of Sarah Palin to a dumb-founded public, the Republican nominee boasted of her record as the taxpayer’s saviour. In fact, records show that Palin was rather less reticent about federal earmarks when the money was winging its way to Wasilla during her tenure as Mayor – $27 million for a town with a population of 6,700 according to the Washington Post.

For years Republicans attacked Congressional Democrats for their reckless spending and addiction to ‘boondoggles’. Once in control of Congress, however, Republicans (including those, like Palin, from outside of the beltway) found the power of pork barrel just as attractive as Democrats had. Unlike in Western Europe, where party ties are often enough to carry the day, incumbents in the US need to boast how their period in office has benefitted their voters and thus the path to re-election has always been paved with taxpayers money. To demand greater fiscal responsibility of Congress is one thing, to miss out on grabbing your share of the pie is entirely another (not to mention the relationship between spending and powerful interest groups).

Anxiety over spending runs deep with much of the Republican base. Fiscal conservatives, deficit hawks and tax-cutters railed against the inability of Congressional Republicans to act against earmarks. This disillusionment, however, created an opportunity for candidate McCain. Distrusted by many Republicans on issues such as immigration and stem cell research, by championing fiscal restraint he taps into an important section of Republican support that felt overshadowed by the recent emphasis on cultural conservatism.

Whether a President McCain could actually make a difference here is moot. His call for a line-item veto allowing the President to strip legislation of individual provisions would, no doubt, run foul of the Supreme Court. This would leave him unappetising decisions to make; whether to veto large, important Bills because of a where a section of the money will end up?

In the end pork barrel is purely subjective – one person’s wasteful congressional spending is another’s much-needed public investment. The bottom line is that, while the electoral incentives to allow members of congress to claim parts of the federal budget for their own constituency exist, party leaders, in Congress and the White House, will find ways to make it happen.

by Ross English

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