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Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

Taking on earmarks

Politics | John McCain's impassioned plea to cut pork from a $410 billion spending bill fell short

WASHINGTON-John McCain's return to the Senate spotlight-almost exactly four months after his unsuccessful White House bid-ended with another defeat Tuesday, as the Senate rejected the Arizona senator's push to eliminate thousands of earmarks in the $410 billion spending bill now before Congress.

McCain's colleagues voted 63-32 against his amendment that would have removed about 8,500 earmarks from the spending bill Congress needs to pass to keep parts of the government running past March 6.

In fiery Senate floor speeches Monday and Tuesday, McCain claimed that Congress and the White House are not kicking their high spending habits despite campaign promises from both parties last year to stop business as usual in Washington.

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Thirty-two Republicans and two Democrats backed McCain's motion. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the $410 billion omnibus-spending bill represents an 8 percent increase over last year's regular appropriations, twice the rate of inflation.

"What all this means is that at a time when most Americans are tightening their belts, Washington is going out and buying a bigger one," McConnell said.

Taxpayers for Common Sense has examined the bill and concluded that it contains 8,570 earmarks totaling $7.7 billion. Combined with last year's spending bills, the organization said that fiscal year 2009 federal spending bills contained $14.3 billion in earmarks.

"This level of funding defies . . . description-it is beyond anything I've ever witnessed and it is extremely alarming," said McCain during a Senate speech in which he rattled off a list of some of the earmarks including:

  • $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa.
  • $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawaii.
  • $6.6 million for termite research in New Orleans.
  • $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York.
  • $1 million for Mormon cricket control in Utah.
  • $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach (Connecticut) Water Taxi Service Project.
  • $870,000 for a wolf breeding facilities in North Carolina and Washington state.
  • $1.7 million for a honeybee factory in Weslaco, Texas.

McCain's proposal would have frozen federal spending at last year's levels in most agencies, cutting about $32 billion from the measure that passed the House last week with very little debate just a day after President Obama addressed Congress.

McCain, who lost to Obama in last November's presidential election, mocked administration officials for saying in numerous media interviews that the earmarks represent last year's business.

"It is this year's business and this president's business and this Congress's business to do what is fiscally responsible," McCain said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president is concerned about the size and scope of earmarks.

"I think the views of the president, as enumerated over the course of many years, are clear, that reform on earmarks is important," Gibbs said.

Gibbs added that the president believes Congress should increase its transparency and accountability. On Monday, Gibbs said a new process for dealing with earmarks would be forthcoming.

"The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently," he said.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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