What the Heck are Earmarks, Anyway? And Why Are They So Bad?

There was a lot of chatter about “earmarks” in last night’s debate between the presidential candidates. But no one bothered to tell us what an earmark is. From the debate, we learned that Barack Obama requested nearly a billion dollars worth of earmarks for his home state of Illinois. John McCain, who falsely claims never to have requested an earmark, cited this as some kind of sin against humanity. But what are earmarks all about?

barack mccainHere’s what happens: Representatives and senators allocate federal funds for something in their district or state that, they say, will benefit their constituents. Some are patently wasteful and the only good thing they do is put money in circulation to stimulate the local economy. You know, something like George Bush sending us all a check a few months ago. I didn’t hear McCain complain about those “stimulus checks,” did you?

But, back to earmarks. Some are extremely beneficial. Here’s an example cited by The Herald Bulletin, a daily newspaper covering the Madison County, Indiana, area, in an editorial last December:

U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., set aside $1 million for the Second Harvest Food Bank of East Central Indiana, including Anderson. The House knocked it down to $700,000. The funds are to be used to renovate the new Delaware County site, re-roof the building, get potholes out of the road system and cover the peeling paint on buildings.

The newspaper noted that ultimately, the money funneled into Second Harvest would allow that organization to serve a growing number of people in need.

As Obama conceded, the earmarking system ought to be reformed because of its lack of accountability. The current system relies too much on the integrity of congressional members. But I don’t see anything among Obama’s earmark requests that would brand him as a spendthrift. He lists all of his earmark requests on his web site:


There are a lot of requests, as you might imagine considering they add up to nearly a billion dollars, but they are all designed to help educational and community projects that seem well worth supporting. Of course, mean McCain has no such record. He has voted against everything that could possibly be of benefit to ordinary Americans, including minimum wage increases, equal pay for women, breast cancer research, and development of alternative energy resources. His handouts go to the richest of the rich, oil companies, for example, and global corporations that have shifted American jobs overseas. And what about the money that quietly funds his International Republican Institute, a subversive right-wing organization that undermines governments around the world? That’s not just wasteful, that’s criminal.

So when McCain rails against earmarks and pretends to be fiscally responsible, someone should call foul. I can’t imagine why he got away with his hypocritical posturing in last night’s debate.

PS: What’s with the photo? I found it on a web site that reported on the candidates’ pop-culture preferences. Seems Obama’s favorite superhero is Spiderman and McCain’s is Batman. I would have guessed Darth Vader, but Dick Cheney has already claimed that one.