On Friday [March 21], a House Appropriations Committee website was so overwhelmed by legislators' wish lists that it crashed, forcing the committee to extend the deadline for earmark requests until Monday. Most members of Congress seem to think the problem with earmarks is like the problem with the committee's server: not any particular person's demands, just all of them together.
On the face of it, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, and the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, take a different view: All three supported a one-year moratorium on earmarks that the Senate recently rejected by a wide margin. But only McCain has taken a principled stand against the pet projects that legislators love to slip into spending bills.
"We Republicans came to power in 1994 to change government," McCain told the Riverside, Calif., Press Enterprise last year, "and the government changed us. That's why we lost the election: We began to value power over principle."
For the Arizona senator, ever-escalating earmarks symbolized how power corrupted the Republicans. It was not just in the most glaring ways, as when Randy Cunningham, the former Republican congressman from San Diego, exchanged defense earmarks for bribes. It was also in the far more common and accepted practice of using earmarks to reward campaign contributors and buy votes.
More fundamentally, Republicans betrayed their commitment to fiscal restraint (not to mention their responsibility to uphold the Constitution) by spending federal tax dollars on local matters. As McCain puts it on his campaign website, earmarks "divert taxpayer dollars to special interest pet projects with little or no national value." He warns that "every dollar irresponsibly spent by Congress is a dollar diverted from pressing national priorities."
I don't necessarily agree with McCain's national priorities or his notion of fiscal responsibility, which includes an open-ended commitment to an ill-considered and increasingly expensive war in Iraq. But at least he makes the point that the federal government was not created so that taxpayers in New Jersey could pay for bridges in Alaska or sweet potato research in Mississippi.
"Pork barrel spending," McCain says, "is an insult to taxpayers, a waste of public resources, and an abdication of our leaders' responsibility to be good and honorable stewards of the public treasury, for the benefit of all Americans, not just a few." He says he wants to end, not mend, earmarks, and in the meantime he declines to seek them for his own state.