John McCain has often criticized lawmakers of pork barreling, supporting wasteful spending simply to demonstrate to constituents they can bring home the bacon. Today, in his most recent attack, McCain accused Senator Hillary Clinton of pushing for wasteful earmarks for her state. But Hillary might not be the only one who likes the taste of pork. Newsday reports,

“Speaking to reporters outside a fundraiser in Los Angeles [yesterday], McCain charged Clinton with larding a recently passed defense appropriations bill with $150 million in home-state earmarks – $43 million of which went to Long Island.

The Arizona Republican, who has fallen from GOP frontrunner to third place in many national polls, chided Clinton for pushing projects ‘the Pentagon had no request for and had no need for.’

He promised to introduce legislation to block senators from earmarking in the future.”

For those political neophytes out there, a brief overview of pork and of congressional votes…For the rest of you, skip to the next paragraph. Clearly, passing legislation is never simple. There are all sorts of complicated reasons to vote for or against a bill that are not always apparent at face value. Senators and representatives sometimes vote in favor of one bill because while they might oppose certain aspects of the legislation, other measures that they support are grouped together in the same bill–so they have no choice but to cast a “yea.” In other instances, a member might vote against a measure he or she essentially supports in some respects in hopes of writing better legislation. And sometimes members trade votes with one piece of legislation for another. So the perception of votes and of pork is difficult, making it very easy to misinterpret votes and pork–especially since pork is usually grouped together with more pressing legislation, which allows members to justify their votes.

While we generally try to avoid including editorials in Reality Check, on March 4 of 2006, the Chicago Tribune, whose editorial board is typically viewed as conservative, ran an editorial “Perfuming the Barnyard” in which it alleged that,

“Arizona Sen. John McCain is sponsoring two interesting pieces of legislation. One mounts a direct assault on congressional earmarks, those little morsels of home district pork that lawmakers slip into unrelated spending bills. The other steers $10 million to the University of Arizona to launch an academic center honoring the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.”

(The rest of the article is included below)

It appears then, that while McCain’s latest assault on pork is on one of his Democratic opponents, Senator McCain is not afraid to support pork projects for his constituents either. His $10 million project is certainly far less than Clinton’s $43 million, but the principle is largely the same.

And, according to New York Magazine on June 13, Senator Clinton has been criticized before for earmarking.

“‘…Hillary Clinton has been working overtime to steer Pentagon funds to the state,’ William Hartung, an arms-trade expert at the New School, just told us. ‘This year alone she has taken credit for two dozen projects worth over $800 million. If she wants to be the commander-in-chief, she should be pushing programs on their merits, not on the basis of pork-barrel politics.’ Hartung calls one project Clinton championed, the presidential helicopter built by Lockheed Martin, a potential ‘burden for taxpayers that may not perform as advertised’ and suggested she’s touted some projects as designed to protect troops in Iraq or Afghanistan when they’re really entirely unrelated. It’s ‘misleading at the least, if not outright unethical,’ he said….”

Tribune Article Continued…

Yes, McCain does seem to be saying to himself: Stop me before I sin again.

The first proposal, though, does make sense. Republican McCain and a few bipartisan co-sponsors unveiled it recently, weeks after Congress passed a $453 billion defense bill that included money for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as hurricane relief. The fine print included $1 million for a Civil War Center in Richmond, Va., $500,000 for the Arctic Winter Games in Alaska, $2 million for a park in San Francisco and $2.85 million for aviation museums in Seattle and Hawaii. That’s just a sampling.

The price tag for such parochial nuggets seems puny when weighed against a $2.8 trillion federal budget, but it adds up. The Congressional Research Service says the collective cost in 2005 for such special spending perks was $47.4 billion. That’s almost as much as the entire budget for the state of Illinois, where lawmakers also know how to lard spending plans with vote-winning favors for the folks back home. How about that Jack Benny statue in Waukegan? The stained glass window for the parking garage in Naperville?

By the way, the term of art in Springfield is pork, while in Washington they prefer earmark. That’s an old cattleman’s description for tagging the ear of a cow as proof of ownership. Both expressions have barnyard overtones. Must have something to do with the stench.

McCain is pushing for new rules to stop colleagues from being sneaky and hiding pet projects in important, hard-to-oppose measures like the defense appropriation. His proposal would require lawmakers to be upfront when pushing for pet projects and make it easier to strip important legislation of extraneous proposals.

The earmark craze has gotten out of hand. In 1994, lawmakers slipped more than 4,000 earmarks into bills that went on to become law. By 2005, congressional researchers say, the number had ballooned to nearly 16,000.

Washington’s lobbying scandals have given a boost to the reform drive. McCain and other reform advocates contend the same lobbyists who shower lawmakers with perks and campaign cash have become increasingly aggressive about seeking earmarks that benefit clients.

So how does this fit with McCain’s other bill to benefit his home state school? Uncomfortably.

McCain and co-sponsor Jon Kyl, Arizona’s other GOP senator, insist their pork proposal isn’t hypocritical because they aren’t trying to hide anything. It is set out in stand-alone legislation to be vetted on its own merits.

Yes, that’s better than a hidden earmark. But not much better. Lawmakers sponsor pork projects to demonstrate they can bring home the bacon. Whether they should be tapping into the public purse rarely enters into the equation. If the Rehnquist center is a good idea, it shouldn’t be too hard to get law firms, a foundation or university alumni to fund it instead of taxpayers. Congress, so deep in red ink, needs to be thinking only in terms of essential spending.

But in Congress, it seems, the only bad pork projects are those sponsored by somebody else.