Friday, April 18, 2008

Porky Promises

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has repeatedly made a major campaign promise to veto any bill that comes to his desk as president if it contains earmarks. "I'll veto every bill that has a pork-barrel project on it," he has said. "I am a deficit hawk," he proclaimed this week, attempting to explain how he would pay for his economic plan that includes massive corporate tax cuts. McCain has failed to note, however, that earmarks have paid for projects that he supports, such as U.S. aid to Israel. Confronted with this reality this week, McCain's campaign quickly granted an exception for Israel. McCain "will ensure America remains committed to the security of Israel, including maintaining America's assistance levels," a spokesperson said. In detailed analyses, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly observes that McCain's ill-conceived earmark-cutting proposal reflects his greater concern with scoring political points than with a substantive examination of the federal budget. The issue isn't the specific earmarks, Lilly argues. Rather, "it's about whether the debate over the future of this country should be based on fluff or substance."

FOREIGN AID? JUST PORK: McCain has long labeled himself as "a very strong proponent to the State of Israel." "If we fail in Israel, where will we succeed?" he asked in July 2007. It is surprising then that McCain was unaware that his earmark plan would obliterate U.S. funding assistance for Israel. McCain's chief economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin has said that McCain embraces the Congressional Research Service's (CRS) definition of the term "earmarks." But under that definition, U.S. aid to Israel is considered an earmark. "[C]ongressional directives specifying spending amounts that are the same as shown in the Administration's illustrative listing for country distributions also are regarded as earmarks. Annual earmarks for economic and military aid to Israel totaling $3 billion is an example of such directives," CRS explains. CRS also counts "nearly three-quarters of the entire Foreign Operations Appropriations bill as an earmark," Lilly writes, including "more than $1.8 billion in annual funding for Egypt, nearly half a billion dollars for Jordan, and tens of millions from countries such as Haiti, Kosovo, and the Philippines. ... All tolled, $14.4 billion, or two thirds of all foreign assistance, would be eliminated if McCain stuck with this proposal."

SHUTTING THE DOOR ON MILITARY HOUSING: U.S. assistance to Israel is not the only casualty in McCain's anti-earmark pledge. CRS's earmark definition also includes funding for military family housing. The Pentagon has said the proportion of recruits who remain in service is 15 percent higher at bases with high-quality housing. As Lilly notes, Congress has renovated or replaced worn military housing mostly "by using earmarks." CRS "counts not only the [military] family housing units added by Congress as earmarks but also those requested by the Pentagon and the White House." What's more, tens of millions in military housing are directed to McCain's home state of Arizona. Will McCain now grant another exception for much-needed military housing, further eroding his promise to veto "every bill that has a pork barrel project?" Or will he deride it as "outrageous" Washington spending?

THE FUZZY MATH: McCain's earmark numbers simply do not add up, leaving two-thirds of his tax proposal unfunded. His estimates of the costs of earmarks are based on CRS's 2005 analysis of the budget, a year in which earmarking reached a high point. But since then, earmarking has declined 23 percent below 2005 levels, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS). While McCain claims $65 billion in earmarks is "already on the books," CRS's definition adds up to $52 billion. TCS came up with only $18.3 billion; the Office of Management and Budget, only $16.9 billion. Ultimately, McCain's budget could not offset the $300 billion a year tax cuts he is also proposing. "Until he has produced a complete and plausible set of spending reductions to cover the cost of his tax proposals, he should withdraw them, or at least concede that they will be paid for by yet more borrowing and a deeper sea of red ink," Lilly charged. When confronted this week with the skepticism of experts about his budget plan, McCain retorted, "I disagree. I disagree with the experts. I disagree. I disagree. I disagree with the experts. I have experts of my own."

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