Washington Watch: Christmas comes on Rosh Hashana

One of the first victims of the McCain policy would be aid to Israel.

September 28, 2008 20:42
4 minute read.
Washington Watch: Christmas comes on Rosh Hashana

douglas bloomfield224.88. (photo credit: )


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While Sen. John McCain, in Friday night's debate with Sen. Barack Obama, was threatening to veto any legislation crossing his desk containing earmarks if he's elected president, their colleagues on Capitol Hill, in both parties and both chambers, were putting the final touches on a $630 billion spending bill that included 2,321 separate earmarks worth $6.6 billion. It was the omnibus spending bill to keep the government functioning until March and let lawmakers go back home to tell voters how indispensable they are to the survival of the republic. That legislation is technically called a continuing resolution, but on the Hill its known as a Christmas tree because of all the ornaments lawmakers hang on it for their friends, constituents, contributors and - here's the shocker - a lot of very good causes. They finished work on the CR just before Rosh Hashana, and they hope to complete work on that $700 billion bank bailout bill by midweek, which should get them home in time to pray for atonement on Yom Kippur. McCain, the Republican nominee, has made zero tolerance of earmarks a centerpiece of his campaign; Obama has vowed to reduce but not eliminate them. To hear McCain tell it, remove the earmarks and you eliminate the deficit and are halfway home to rescuing the economy. WHILE $6.6 billion is an unfathomable amount of money for most of us (Google: "billion" and "Dirksen"), it is barely 1 percent of the bill, and about the same proportion of the entire $3 trillion federal budget, and removing every single earmark would barely make a dent in the deficit. But it would do great harm to a great many good programs. One of first victims of the McCain policy would be aid to Israel, an earmark of $3 billion in annual security assistance, plus millions more in other programs in the defense, foreign operations and other parts of the federal budget. From time to time administrations have tried to remove the Israel earmark to pressure or punish Israel. Even a popular president like Ronald Reagan had to back down in the face of strong bipartisan opposition from the Congress. There's a lot more at stake for the Jewish community. United Jewish Communities maintains a fulltime Washington lobbying (it prefers the term "advocacy" but it's the same thing) office to help federations and their beneficiary agencies get federal funding for their programs. That's particularly critical at a time when these groups are facing a big drop in contributions as a result of the current economic crisis, especially in real estate, banking and Wall Street, a source of many of the biggest givers. The UJC Washington office lobbied this year against cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, for up to $125 million for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, for $65 million for security for Jewish communal institutions against potential terror attacks, and other programs for the aging, homeless, elderly and employment retraining in the wake of natural disasters. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, UJC and other Jewish organizations annually bring thousands of citizen activists to Washington to lobby in support of aid for Israel, for their local federations, social service agencies and communities and other issues. And that usually means earmarks. IT IS better to have elected lawmakers making "informed decisions" about the needs of their constituents than "unknowing and unknown bureaucrats in Washington," said William Daroff, head of UJC's Washington office. "UJC has helped federations and their beneficiary agencies secure close to $30 million in support of community-derived earmark projects since Fiscal 2002." If McCain gets his way, another big loser will be Alaska, where his running mate, Sarah Palin, has been governor for less than two years. Her state has the distinction of being the largest per capita beneficiary of federal earmarked spending, and her senior senator, Ted Stevens (R) is the undisputed king of earmarks and pork barrel spending on Capitol Hill. Palin, before her campaign battlefield conversion, was a true believer in earmarks. She pushed for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. She hired a former Stevens aide to lobby in Washington for nearly $750 million in earmarks she has called "incredibly important." But hers may not be a true conversion - to her credit. She told ABC's Charles Gibson that she doesn't want to eliminate them, only to make sure they are done "in the light of day, not behind closed doors, with lobbyists making deals to stick things in there under the public radar." That's not what McCain says - "I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress tops sending bills with earmarks." - but it makes a lot more sense. Of course, there are many abuses. And some strange spending. In this week's spending bill alone, Stevens, who is currently on trial in federal court on corruption charges, was able to insert 39 earmarks worth $238.5 million, including one McCain likes to attack (without identifying the link to his running mate) to study the hibernation of Alaskan ground squirrels and black bears. Three times in recent years, McCain's lists of "objectionable" pork spending have included earmarks requested by his new running mate. The problem isn't earmarks but the abuse of them. Selling earmarks in the defense spending bill sent Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-California) from the people's house to the Big House. But that doesn't justify McCain's indiscriminate obsession with tossing the baby out with the bathwater. He ought to listen to his running mate when she talks about transparency. What's needed is a heavy dose of sunshine. Publish them, explain them, show who is behind them and who benefits, and then vote and be counted. Don't hang special interest pork barrel spending in the middle of the night like ornaments on a Christmas tree in the rush to adjourn. Not all earmarks are bad. Some of that pork can be glatt kosher.

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