Battle Over Earmarks Ushers in McCain vs. Obama II

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is following through on one campaign pledge even though he failed to win the White House.

"I will make them famous," said McCain in nearly every public appearance he made over the course of two years on the campaign trail. He was speaking of members of Congress who slipped earmarks into appropriations bills to get some federal dollars flowing to pet projects back home.

Of course, McCain envisioned highlighting those earmarks that he has railed against for years from that huge bully pulpit at the White House. Instead, McCain has taken to the digital bully pulpit of Twitter that has been all the rage in official Washington of late. He has been regularly tweeting top 10 lists of the spending projects he finds most egregious.

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"$1,284,525 for Rolls Royce -- does that include a car?" read one tweet last week. "$1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service Project, CT," read another. His opposition to the omnibus bill passed by Congress Tuesday evening has marked his most vocal and strident return to the public spotlight since his presidential campaign ended in defeat.

Necessary Projects

The total number of earmarks has certainly grown exponentially in recent years. There were approximately 1,300 earmarks in 1994. The $410 billion omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama today includes roughly 8,500 earmarks totaling $7.7 billion.

One person's extraneous pork is, however, another person's funding of a necessary project in their district that goes to the heart of constituent service. News organizations love to focus a spotlight on earmarks because they have been at the center of some recent high-profile public corruption probes.

But not all earmarks are examples of wasteful spending. And it is important to remember that in the bill signed by the president today, earmarks make up for less than 2 percent of the total spending.

In fact, the Democratic opposition to the spending measure from Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is rooted not just in opposition to the earmark process, but in the much greater expense of increasing non-discretionary government spending by 8 percent in the grip of the recession the country is currently facing.

When McCain and then-Sen. Obama met in Oxford, Miss. at their first presidential debate last September, Obama acknowledged McCain's earmark outrage and promised to reform the process as president. "We need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely," Obama said then.

Obama (with some help from his Democratic allies in Congress who introduced some reforms today on the matter) attempted to make good on that pledge today when he publicly laid out his goals for future reforms.

"Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose," the president said. "Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' Web sites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merit for themselves. And each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer."

Nonetheless, the $410 billion omnibus spending bill featuring those 8,500-plus earmarks received the president's signature today. But that happened in private away from the glare of the television cameras.

Today's action by Obama did not go unnoticed by McCain, who was urging a veto again this morning. "No time is better than the present to undertake earmark reform, Mr. President," tweeted McCain.

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