Wednesday, March 4, 2009

John McCain still obsessing about earmarks

John McCain is still obsessed with earmarks. Apparently he stood on the floor of the Senate denouncing them, and denounced them on Twitter as well. I have a hard time picturing this - did he use his own BlackBerry? Props to the man for joining the 21st centuy, I suppose. Maureen Dowd is impressed, sort of, and gets in some digs at

I think I finally understand why John McCain focuses so much on earmarks: he doesn't have any big ideas. He doesn't think in terms of grand theories. He thinks he does, crusading for campaign finance reform, and I'm willing to give him some credit for thinking big for himself, what with running for president and all. But in terms of policy, his strongest card is an intense aversion to the most trivial details in the budget.

One item Dowd cites from McCain's Twitterfest is an item for $650,000 in "beaver management." Yes, that sounds ridiculous. A reader wrote to Andrew Sullivan, however, and explained that this is legit; beavers have the ability to reroute streams, which can wreak havoc on roads and homes.

It's time to defend earmarks. Sullivan's reader got me thinking. $650,000 is a drop in a drop in a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But it's a huge amount of money to whoever is trying to control these beavers in North Carolina and Mississippi.

Someone had to take the time to apply for this earmark. They had to draft a proposal. They had to crunch the numbers. They had to get approval for the project from their local city council, or state legislators, or regional wildlife management agency, to do whatever they are doing to manage beavers. They probably looked for funding from the city, state, or private agencies. They had to get the attention of whatever Representative or Senator sponsored it, which means that they had to get the attention of some local officials. They have to work with the local press. By the time this gets to be an earmark, a lot of work has been done to vet this proposal. It has survived lots of competition.

For every earmark that is in this budget, I would be willing to bet that there are 100 that were rejected at some point along the way. Every single American can think of something that they would like the government to be spending their money on in their neighborhood. It might be as simple as potholes, as complex as high-speed rail. It might be a high school gym that needs a new roof, it might be a bridge that needs to be rebuilt, it might be a town hall damaged by a tornado. Every single American can think of something. Every single American would love to have an earmark attached to that problem. But very, very few Americans are going to benefit from managing beavers in a few places in the South.

So John McCain ridicules the needs of the few, pretending to be defending the interests of the many. What he's really doing, however, is encouraging Americans to think of themselves as isolated individuals, alientated from the collective, their interests thwarted by the demands of people remote from them.

Take out your wallet, Senator McCain. Look at a one dollar bill. See that eagle on the back? See that ribbon in his beak? You might want to remember what it says: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. We're all in this together, Senator. Some of us are as eager as beavers to make it all work.

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