Sarah Palin, John McCain, and Earmarks

While Sen. John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin has won millions in earmarks for her city, McCain has refused to pursue them, writes Scott Lilly.


The truth is out. Sarah Palin may have posed as an opponent of congressionally mandated earmarks, but when the slop was in the bucket, she was one of the first at Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) trough.

The Seattle Times reported yesterday that she submitted 31 earmark requests totaling $197 million in the current (FY2009) budget cycle. According to that paper, it was “more, per person, than any other state.”

The Washington Post reports that in 2000, Palin took an extraordinary step as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town that had fewer than 5,500 residents—she hired a Washington lobbyist to seek congressional earmarks. According to the Post, she won a total of $6.1 million in earmarks for the city of Wasilla in 2002.

A review of the Taxpayers for Common Sense database from which the Post derived that number indicates that 2002 was actually a subpar year for Palin. Over the course of her four years she sought earmarks as city mayor and won an average of $6.7 million a year.

Both numbers need to be placed in some perspective. Fiscal year 2008 was the first year for which there was a complete listing of all earmarks contained in all appropriation bills. That information was loaded into several databases, including the one developed by Taxpayers for Common Sense. According to that data, the average state got about $50 per person in earmarked funds in 2008. Alaska, represented by Ted Stevens, the Senate’s earmarker-in-chief, got $506 per person—about 10 times the national average. Wasilla between 2000 and 2003 was getting well over $1,000 per person—twice the Alaska state average in 2008.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these actions. Yet Palin has advertised herself as a reformer and a skeptic of earmarking while maneuvering to become the earmark queen of the earmark state. The energy she has put into finding resources to help solve problems in her hometown and her state is admirable. She didn’t create the rules about how federal money is distributed—by competitive grants, formulas, or congressional earmarks—but once the rules were in place, she used them to the maximum advantage of those she was elected to represent.

That creates an odd juxtaposition between her and the man with whom she shares the ticket. Unlike most of his colleagues in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has not only tried to change the rules governing the use of earmarks—he has refused to pursue them on behalf of needy constituencies he was elected to defend even when it was clear that the rules would not be changed and millions of dollars that might go to Arizona would be headed to other parts of the country.

While Sara Palin’s constituents in Wasilla were getting about 20 times the national average in earmarked federal funding, McCain’s constituents in Arizona were getting less than half the national average. The data indicates that if Arizona had matched the national average, the state would have, in the current fiscal year, received more than $133 million dollars in additional federal investments in schools, hospitals, roads, and so forth. In fact, the database indicates that Arizona rates dead last among the 50 states in per capita earmarked funds at $18.70 per person. This is despite the best efforts of Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who is also an opponent of the earmarking process, but unwilling to give up earmarked funds to other states just to protect rhetorical high ground.

A review of the earmarks that Kyl and others in the delegation brought home to Arizona in 2008 tells an interesting story. Kyl reached across the aisle to help Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) with a project for the community of Nogales, Arizona—a project intended to resolve a long festering safety and public health issue.

Nogales is a town of about 20,000, or roughly three times the size of Wasilla, but a third of the residents live in poverty compared to 12 percent nationally and 10 percent in Wasilla. Overall, per capita income in Nogales is about a third of the national average. But perhaps the biggest problem facing Nogales is its geography. It is one of the few places on the U.S.-Mexican border where the watershed flows north, and when tropical storms from the Pacific Ocean come raging across the Sonoran dessert as they do every couple of years. Nogales, Arizona, is inundated not only in water but animal waste, raw sewage, and debris from Mexico.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a flood control plan for Nogales, but no money has been included in recent presidential budgets for such an effort. Kyl and Grijalva’s efforts added $4.6 million to the FY2008 budget to begin to address this critical need.

Kyl also worked with fellow Republican Rick Renzi (R-AZ) to add $750,000 to the Transportation and Housing Appropriation bill to repair a road on the Navajo Reservation running from Hardrock to Pinon. The current quality of the road is so poor that it is often impassible in winter months, residents are cut off from the outside world, and food and medical supplies must be airlifted to avert starvation.

This is not to say that everything that Kyl or others in the Arizona delegation do with respect to earmarking is perfect or even laudable. I am certain they directed funds at less urgent needs. But it does demonstrate that Arizona, like many states, has communities that desperately need help, and that McCain, unlike his running mate, has had the power to help those communities and has refused to do so. That is a rather remarkable decision, even if it makes one’s campaign message a little crisper. Perhaps there are things that John McCain can learn from Sara Palin during the course of the coming campaign.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow