It’s Not About Israel

It’s about whether the debate over the future of this country should be based on fluff or substance.

It’s about whether the debate over the future of this country should be based on fluff or substance.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) earlier this week adopted a definition for earmarks that includes funding for the state of Israel, effectively eliminating all assistance to the country. But what’s important is not the true extent of his commitment to Israel, but the utter lack of real substance contained in the economic proposal he has spent the last three days touting to the country.

Anyone who talks about earmarks as frequently as Sen. McCain must surely be aware that over the past year there have been two major efforts initiated to identify and track the number and cost of congressional earmarks. One effort began at the White House Office of Management and Budget at the direction of the President. The other was undertaken at the private, non-profit organization Taxpayers for Common Sense. Both of these efforts examined the Fiscal 2008 appropriation bills with a fine tooth comb and identified each provision or listing they classified as an earmark and tallied the number and cost of all identified earmarks.

Evidently, Sen. McCain’s problem with these two efforts is that they reveal that earmarking is less of a budget issue than his rhetoric has represented it as. The Office of Management and Budget analysis found earmarks totaling $16.9 billion, and the Taxpayers for Commonsense analysis found $18.3 billion. Both show that earmarks account for only about 0.6 percent of government spending. More importantly, neither earmark tally would put a dent in the massive spending cuts required to offset McCain’s tax proposals.

In order to get a bigger number, McCain and his staff turned to a three-year-old analysis by the Congressional Research Service, which examined earmarks in the fiscal year 2005 appropriation bills—the year that most people who follow this topic believe the practice of congressional earmarking reached its peak. But the big issue with the CRS analysis is not simply that it is out of date and not reflective of current spending levels, but that the Congressional Research Service used definitions for earmarking that are quite different from other organizations engaged in earmark analysis.

McCain’s obvious attraction to the CRS data is that the definitions they use in examining the various appropriation bills produced a much (about three times) bigger number for earmark expenditures. CRS makes it very clear in the introduction to their analysis that defining earmarks is a very tricky business. They do not contend that these expenditures were wasteful or inappropriate—simply that they were targeted by law to a specific purpose. Items counted by CRS as earmarks were often requested by the president and concurred on by the Congress. CRS identified $52.1 billion in the 2005 bills based on their definitions.

That number would go much further in paying for the proposed McCain tax proposals than the data generated by either of the two more recent analyses. The obvious question that almost any semi-cautious public official, speech writer, or policy advisor would demand to know, however, is what does CRS count as earmarks that is different from what other people are counting, and can we afford to propose eliminating those items?

The answer is that there is very little that CRS counts as earmarks above and beyond those found by OMB or Taxpayers for Common Sense that McCain would want to be associated with cutting. Assistance for Israel is only the most obvious example. It is doubtful that McCain would choose to start his presidency by terminating drug eradication funds for Colombia, the long standing assistance program to Egypt and Jordan, or humanitarian aid to Haiti.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently testified that we rely too heavily on military force in our national security strategy and should increase, rather than reduce, diplomatic and assistance-based efforts. McCain has offered no indication that he disagrees with that thesis, but implementing his earmark proposals would not only eliminate the prospects for moving policy in the direction advocated by Gates; it would eviscerate nearly all of what the United States is currently doing in that area. All tolled, $14.4 billion, or two thirds of all foreign assistance, would be eliminated if McCain stuck with this proposal.

But other areas are equally problematic. Sen. McCain knows as well as any member of the Senate that military family housing on installations across the country and around the world is in a disgraceful state. Congress has led the way in replacing the worn out and dilapidated housing units that members of the armed forces and their families are forced to live in because we have not been willing to spend the necessary money to renovate or replace units in a timely fashion. For the most part, Congress has done so by using earmarks. The Congressional Research Service analysis counts not only the family housing units added by Congress as earmarks, but also those requested by the Pentagon and the White House.

CRS identified $6.6 billion in spending in the 2005 Military Construction Appropriation bill associated with earmarks. This included 205 units at Fort Huachuca at a cost of $41 million and 250 units at Davis-Monthan Air Base at a cost $48.5 million—both in McCain’s home state of Arizona.

In a different area, CRS identified critical government construction efforts such as a new Federal Bureau of Investigation building in Los Angeles and 12 facilities aimed at assisting U.S. border patrol and customs officials in fully screening all cargo and individuals entering the country—particularly those entering through previously under-manned checkpoints on the northern border. Each of these projects was requested by the president.

The question that Senator McCain must answer is which of the Congressional Research Service-identified earmarks he supports, and which would he actually eliminate. Until he has produced a complete and plausible set of spending reductions to cover the cost of his tax proposals, he should withdraw them, or at least concede that they will be paid for by yet more borrowing and a deeper sea of red ink.

The other question that Sen. McCain must now address is whether the shallow and sloppy work that went into the preparation of this latest economic plan is an aberration in an otherwise serious effort to have a serious debate about future policy choices facing the country, or emblematic of an approach to government in which the facts don’t matter.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow