Where the candidates stand on earmarks
John McCain abhors them. Hillary Rodham Clinton embraces them. Barack Obama does a little of both. The leading contenders for president...
Seattle Times staff reporter
John McCain abhors them. Hillary Rodham Clinton embraces them. Barack Obama does a little of both.
The leading contenders for president cover the spectrum in their attitudes toward political pork known as earmarks.
In recent years, earmarks have become mired in controversy and scandal — from a $220 million earmark for a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska to the corruption convictions of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Duke Cunningham. Still, members of Congress continue to parcel them out, arguing that part of their job is to bring federal dollars back to their states.
Legions of lobbyists coax lawmakers each year to drop thousands of earmarks for their clients into spending bills with little to no scrutiny or debate. The 2008 defense bill bulged with more than 2,100 earmarks, costing $8 billion, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The use of earmarks and the powerful influence of lobbyists on Congress have been hotly debated in the presidential race. As that debate has continued, the top presidential candidates dealt with earmarks as senators in starkly different fashion from each other.
In the defense bill, for example, The Seattle Times found that Clinton sponsored 66 earmarks totaling $150 million. Obama sponsored six earmarks totaling $34 million; all were for nonprofit organizations. McCain didn't ask for any earmarks this year.
McCain has never sought an earmark in his 26 years in Congress, said his spokeswoman Melissa Sheffield.
"I believe that earmarking has led to corruption," McCain says on his campaign Web site. "It's like any other evil: You either eliminate it or it grows."
McCain built his reputation as a maverick in part because of his constant criticism of earmarks sponsored by his Republican colleagues.
He thwarted a $26 billion earmark for Boeing that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, quietly slipped into the defense bill shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. McCain argued the earmark to lease 100 refueling tankers from Boeing broke the rules for major defense purchases. He embarked on a three-year quest to kill it.
E-mails dug up by a congressional inquiry offered evidence that the earmark was sought to shield Boeing from an airline-industry recession. Other details uncovered by the probe eventually led to corruption convictions against Boeing executive Michael Sears and Air Force official Darlene Druyun.
McCain frequently boasts of his crusade against the Boeing earmark, using it as an example of how he's not afraid to wrestle with powerful interests.
In contrast to McCain, Clinton boasts about scores of earmarks she delivers each year throughout her home state of New York. In the defense-bill earmarks Clinton sponsored, she mostly handed out business to defense contractors with operations in New York.
The Seattle Times counted more than 220 earmarks for Clinton in six other recent spending bills.
Those who get earmarks usually donate to election campaigns. Clinton's campaign has received $60,000 from those to whom she gave earmarks — a pittance of the $116 million she's raised. She received a like amount from those same donors for her Senate race.
Clinton rarely sponsors earmarks by herself. Usually, she's joined by fellow New Yorker Sen. Charles Schumer or others. But critics have asked how Clinton and her staff could vet so many earmarks to make sure they're worthwhile.
For example, Clinton this year sponsored a $2.4 million earmark for the New York-based parent company of InSport to sell a "base-layer" shirt to the Marine Corps. Yet the Marine Corps won't buy the T-shirt because, when exposed to heat, it can melt and badly burn the wearer. The Marines will buy a fleece pullover from InSport instead.
A Clinton aide who vets earmarks said in December he understood the InSport earmark was for a fleece pullover, adding that Clinton carefully vets earmarks. After Seattle Times stories about the T-shirt earmark were published, Clinton deleted references to the earmark in her news releases.
As for local companies, Clinton succeeded in getting two earmarks totaling $6 million this year for Bellevue-based eMagin, even though the company lost millions of dollars in each of the last 10 years.
eMagin researches and makes miniature computer displays worn on soldiers' helmets at a plant in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. In the company's latest financial statements, an independent auditor said there was substantial doubt that eMagin could survive. Last year, the American Stock Exchange delisted eMagin for not meeting financial standards.
Clinton's earmarks have boosted the revenues of a company that had been averaging sales of $4 million a year. The chief executive and chief financial officer recently quit. But Bruce Ridley, vice president of sales, said while the earmarks help sales, the company doesn't really make a profit on them.
Like Clinton, Obama doles out earmarks, directing $34 million to universities and to a government-owned weapons maker, Rock Island Arsenal. The Times counted more than 80 more earmarks from Obama in six other spending bills.
However, Obama says he doesn't give earmarks to companies, just nonprofits. Last year, he gave $1.3 million to the Gas Technology Institute to research fuel cells. GTI is a nonprofit whose members include major energy companies.
Those who got defense earmarks have given $16,000 to Obama's campaign funds.
While McCain has made earmarks a campaign issue, Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said that neither Clinton nor Obama have said much on the topic.
McCain and Obama have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to provide the public with more details about earmarks. All three candidates sponsored a bill to create a new Web site to show more details of government contracts. That bill became law, and the site is www.usaspending.gov.
David Heath: 206-464-2136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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