WASHINGTON — At the first presidential debate, John McCain ridiculed Congress for approving a $3 million study of DNA in bears.
"I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money," McCain said. "And it has got to be brought under control."
The Arizona senator, who's long crusaded against pork-barrel spending by Congress, offers two ideas for how the government should counter out-of-control federal spending: Impose a partial one-year spending freeze and put a stop to all "earmarks," which are special projects sponsored by individual members of Congress that are stuffed into spending bills without due process. They accounted for $18 billion in last year's $2.9 trillion budget, much less than 1 percent of federal spending.
Barack Obama says that's too simple. He says that a spending freeze is "using a hatchet where you need a scalpel" to make discriminating judgments. While he, too, wants to crack down on earmarks, he argues that taxpayers could save much more by looking elsewhere: $10 billion a month by ending the war in Iraq and $300 billion by rejecting tax cuts favored by McCain that would go to the wealthiest people and corporations.
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"Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important," the Illinois senator said.
Experts defend the positions of both candidates.
Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that McCain was the champion of pork opponents, and Schatz argues that the government will never cut spending if it can't even get rid of earmarks.
"It is a small piece of the pie, but if you can't eliminate the teapot museum in North Carolina or the $50 million indoor rainforest in Iowa, how are you going to address these larger issues?" he asked.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said that earmarks were a tiny portion of federal spending and that Obama's argument made good sense. Tax cuts, he said, should be viewed as pork because they can affect different people in vastly different ways.
He has one prediction: Either Illinois — Obama's home state — or Arizona — McCain's home state — will receive a larger share of funding when formulas are written for government programs in the next four years. He said that influential members of Congress often steered more money to a president's home state to curry favor or to get the president to sign a bill, or the president might insist that his home state get a bigger chunk of the largesse in exchange for his support.
"Nobody's virginal on this stuff," Oppenheimer said.
McCain is one of five senators who didn't request money for a single earmark last year. He's said he'd veto any bill that contains earmarks, and he vows to expose members of Congress who seek them — to "make them famous," as he puts it.
"It's something that he, I believe, would carry out," Schatz said. "He was the lone anti-pork senator for many, many years."
Obama, who voted for a one-year moratorium on earmarks, requested 53 of them totaling more than $97 million last year, ranking 70th among the 100 senators. Since then, he's suspended his earmark requests, and he says he won't seek any in the 2009 budget if he remains in the Senate.
Obama introduced legislation to require more disclosure of earmarks, and he proposes to cut spending on them to 1994 levels, but unlike McCain he hasn't said that he'd veto spending bills that contain earmarks.
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