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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Dr. StrangeGOP or How I learned to stop worrying and love the earmark

Published: October 17, 2008
Section: Opinions

Ever been to John McCain’s campaign website? You should. Why?

Because he has a videogame!

Yes, it’s true. McCain’s campaign website comes complete with a game called Pork Invaders, in which players blast cute little pink pigs out of the air with a “veto gun”, saving taxpayer dollars with every shot!

Perhaps it’s a nostalgic reminder of McCain’s youth; the days he spent on the family farm, shooting pigs and waiting impatiently for his uncle to let him go off and fight for the nation during the period of Civil War.

Okay, I made that up (although I do take credit for the simultaneous age joke and Star Wars reference). But Pork Invaders is real, and it demonstrates McCain’s obsession with combating earmarks.

What is an earmark, you ask? Well, an exact definition of the term has never been agreed on, but in general, “earmarks” refer to allocations of money toward specific projects that are added to spending bills.

John McCain and his conservative allies believe this spending is a drain on the economy and the one roadblock preventing us from enjoying low taxes. He has promised several times that, if elected, he would demand the line-item veto and comb through all bills that pass his desk, vetoing earmarks that he deems “wasteful” and making the members of Congress who added such spending “famous”.

Sounds great, right? Wrong.

First of all, the line-item veto, a power briefly granted to President Clinton, was deemed unconstitutional in 1998 by a 6-3 Supreme Court decision in the case Clinton v. City of New York. The Court felt that such a power allowed the President to undermine Congress and upset the balance of power. This is not something McCain could just take back easily, and odds are his Presidency would be marked by bitter fight with Congress over earmarks that they refuse to remove from bills.

Which brings me to my next point. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, earmarks, for the most part, are not wasteful at all. They allow members of Congress to use their power of the purse in one of the most direct ways possible: by spending money on public works or scientific research.

But McCain wants us to forget all that. You may have heard him criticize on particular government earmark in the past, one that appropriated $3 million for a study of the DNA of bears in Montana. McCain brings this up from time to time as a way to make earmarks seem ridiculous, and one must admit, on the surface this one does seem like a waste. However, it turns out that the whole point of the study was to determine whether or not the bear population of Montana should be considered endangered. This is actually important, for anytime a wildlife population is considered endangered due to human activity, it is up to the government to protect it.

Not such a waste after all, huh? Neither is federal money that is spent on schools, or bridge repairs, or any of the many projects that millions of Americans have benefited from and support. And neither, if I may be so bold, was the $500,000 that McCain earmarked to repair a 200-year-old mission in Arizona in 1989, the $14.3 million earmarked to create a buffer zone around Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in 2003, or the $10 million he and Representative John Kyle earmarked for a new University of Arizona academic center named after Justice Rehnquist in 2006. Yes, it’s true, although McCain has for years claimed to be earmark free, the good Senator has had his share. But I won’t criticize him for it; for I consider them to be legitimate and harmless. And this, at last, brings me to my final point.

Believe it or not, earmarks are cheap. This past year, they only cost the government about $18 billion, and that may seem like a lot, but it is nothing compared to our $455 billion budget deficit or our $3 trillion total budget. In fact, earmarks account for less than 1% of all federal spending.

So when John McCain gets up in front of his crowds of supporters and chants about how earmark spending is out of control and how he will eliminate them all in order to make room for tax cuts, don’t be fooled. Yes, it is true that on occasion earmarks are added to bills with the sole purpose of wasting money (a.k.a. the Bridge to Nowhere), but in such cases the responsibility falls on Congress’s shoulders to control itself. As a whole, there is far too much benefit to be gained from earmarks for us to allow a McCain administration to take them all away.

Don’t think he wont try, if elected. After all, the “war on earmarks” makes up the center of his campaign.