John McCain used his appearance on ABC’s "The View" to lie about Sarah Palin’s record on earmarks.

McCain claimed that Palin had never requested earmarks for pet projects. In fact, as governor of Alaska, Palin requested $200 million in earmarks this year alone.

It’s good to call out McCain and Palin on their hypocrisy, but I’m concerned that this discussion reinforces the idea that earmarks are inherently shameful.

Earmarks are not intrinsically frivolous or scandalous. They’re riders on appropriations bills that allow members of Congress to set aside money for a particular organization, project, region, or program.

It’s nonsensical for Palin to claim to have opposed earmarks as governor. Not only is she lying, she’s saying something that, if true, would establish her incompetence as a governor. It is Palin’s job to work with the Alaska’s congressional delegation to get the best possible deal for Alaska. 

McCain likes to claim that we could save tens of billions of dollars by eliminating earmarks. Like so many of his claims, this one is false. Most earmarks aren’t even new spending. Usually they’re just more specific directions for spending money that has already been allocated for a particular purpose. Let’s say $100 million has already been set aside for bridge repairs. A member of Congress might add an earmark stipulating that $2 million of that money will go to widen a specific bridge in greater Peoria. Without the earmark, bureaucrats in the executive branch would have divvied up the bridge money. It’s not clear that they would have made a better, or less politically motivated, decision.

We’re all familiar with flagrant earmark abusers like Ted Stevens (R-AK) who use earmarks to fund boondoggles like the Bridge to Nowhere and pay off their cronies at public expense. However, we should be careful not to conflate earmarks with pork or corruption.

Our legislators are supposed to serve the country as a whole, but they’re also duty-bound to take a special interest in the wellbeing of their own constituents. That’s a not a bug, it’s a feature.

Discrediting earmarks is a de facto executive power grab. If Congress doesn’t decide where the money goes, federal agencies in the executive branch will make the decision. Recall that Bush has packed the federal bureaucracy with political hacks who are hostile to the very missions of their organizations. No doubt McCain will do the same.

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein