Out on the stump, John McCain gets wild applause each time he promises as president to veto every spending bill that contains an earmark.
But McCain will find it almost impossible to live up to his vow, and gridlock would result if Congress refused to go along with such an executive branch power grab.
And that’s what members of McCain’s own party are saying.
“I don’t think it’s the right approach,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who has spent three decades on the House Appropriations Committee. “I haven’t done an earmark I wouldn’t be happy to have spread all over the front pages of the paper.”
Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), a former Appropriations Committee chairman, warns that both parties in Congress would protect their power against a no-earmark policy.
“The Constitution is very specific and very clear about who appropriates money,” Young said. “Not all earmarks are pork-barrel spending.”
McCain has billed himself and his running mate as mavericks who will stand up to foolish spending.
The campaign has pitched Sarah Palin as a governor who said “no thanks” to an earmark for Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” although press reports have established that she supported the earmark before she opposed it.
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican and member of the Appropriations Committee, says he understands McCain’s desire to crack down on wasteful spending and kill the latest “bridge to nowhere.” But if a McCain administration suddenly started shooting down every spending bill, lawmakers on both sides might revolt.
“The realistic outlook is for a great reduction in earmarks and a real discussion about earmarks,” Kingston said.
Because Congress has failed again to finish its spending bills on time, the new president will likely receive a new omnibus spending bill just after taking office. If McCain makes good on his campaign promise, “he could veto it, and we’d probably override” the veto, Kingston said.
Or, if there aren’t enough votes to override a veto, “it could be like 1995,” when the government shut down, says David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group.
The promise to veto any bill with congressional earmarks doesn’t take into account executive branch earmarks, which come by the scores in the president’s annual budget request. McCain has not promised to get rid of the executive branch’s line-item spending requests.
“What we would be doing is handing over all of our authority to the administration,” said Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.). “We’d be saying the White House, in its judgments, would decide what every community in America needs.”
McCain is not new to this earmark debate. It’s one area where he can still legitimately claim the maverick label. For years he has taken to the Senate floor and read long lists of ridiculous-sounding earmarks and clashed with Republican earmarkers such as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
And his campaign isn’t backing away from the promise that he’ll veto any bill with earmarks, even if it would create a massive showdown in his first days in office.
“He’s someone who dedicated his career to taking on the status quo and fighting an earmark process that breeds corruption,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said when asked Tuesday about congressional resistance to an earmark ban. “If they’re worthy [projects], then they can be approved through an open process.”
But as many veteran lawmakers point out, for every far-flung Alaskan bridge project or hippie museum, there are dozens of other earmarks that are politically palatable, like military base housing improvements levee upgrades and Veterans Affairs hospital wings.
And many of these are never requested by the executive agencies or the White House.
Young points out that it was one of his earmarks back in the early 1990s that created the National Bone Marrow Registry. And the Predator drone — an unmanned aircraft critical in the war on terrorism — was created by a congressional earmark.
“What a President McCain could do is make Congress pay closer attention to earmarks,” Young said.
Even the watchdog groups, whose sole existence is to track and criticize earmarks, admit that McCain’s promise would be difficult to carry out.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks government spending. “It’ll be a game of chicken [with Congress]. If he’s elected, he could claim a mandate on earmarks.”
But that mandate would run smack into a handful of unmovable objects on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate, where old bulls like Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and former Chairmen Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Stevens (R) have shown no inclination to give up earmarks.
All of these senators are known as fierce defenders of the constitutionally granted power of Congress to appropriate money.
And they’re all well known for their earmarks.
“The idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful executive bureaucracy is more trustworthy than the elected representatives of the people when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars challenges the most basic tenet of our political system,” Byrd said in a statement. “An earmark is an economic need that many times falls between the cracks of the Washington bureaucracy. When that happens, the people we represent cannot call some unelected bureaucrat in the White House budget office.”
Regula, a longtime appropriator who has been in the minority, the majority and back in the minority in Congress, says the endgame is simple — a compromise with the new president, whoever that is.
“There are a lot of campaign promises that will come up against reality,” Regula said. “It’s one thing to go and say it on the trail. It’s another thing to do it in the real world.”