McCain's ire over pork targets all

GOP allies unsafe from his criticism on funding tactic

March 04, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his chief champion in Maryland, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, are both decorated Vietnam War veterans willing to buck their party's establishment, notably on campaign finance reform.

But the two men diverge on a key element in McCain's crusade against the way Washington works. McCain's criticism of his colleagues' pet home-state projects, which he derides as "pork," extends to at least $64 million in Gilchrest-sponsored initiatives passed by Congress last year.

Gilchrest is one of several McCain supporters in Congress -- a group including GOP Sens. Fred Thompson, Mike DeWine and Jon Kyl -- who have come under friendly fire from the Arizona senator.

Along with many of their colleagues, Gilchrest and the senators have participated in the long-standing practice of slipping coveted items into broader spending bills without first gaining the approval of committees that are supposed to weigh the merits of competing projects or programs. In effect, they get in through the back door.

The practice, which helps to ensure votes from both sides of the aisle, since the items are buried in major spending measures that must be passed to keep the government running, has a rich bipartisan tradition stretching to the 19th century.

When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they promised to end the practice, called pork barrel spending, which is often executed in frenzied late-night negotiations or closed-door meetings. Instead, over the past few years, McCain's fellow Republicans have accelerated it.

McCain's willingness to confront his allies illustrates his ire over the way those pet projects seem to materialize out of thin air, often without public hearings or legislative scrutiny.

But McCain's stance also demonstrates the ambiguity of definitions in Washington, where the ability to discern deserving projects from boondoggles depends largely on who is doing the discerning.

In New York, which like Maryland holds its presidential primary Tuesday, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has seized on McCain's criticism of funds obtained this way to depict him as at odds with voters' concerns.

To underscore the issue, Bush appeared at a Long Island breast cancer research center yesterday while running radio ads condemning McCain for characterizing spending on state breast cancer programs as pork.

McCain retorted that he has long voted to support funding for breast cancer research but that the funds for the programs cited by Bush had been inappropriately tacked onto unrelated bills and had not received legislative scrutiny.

McCain has repeatedly said he takes exception not to the projects but to the manner in which they receive funds, a process that prizes the lawmakers' influence above an initiative's worth.

Mark Buse, the staff director for the McCain-led Senate Commerce Committee, has been nicknamed "the Ferret" by McCain for his ability to identify pork in spending bills. Offending items are listed on McCain's official Senate Web site, which displays, lest viewers miss the point, a large hog prancing across the bottom of the screen.

But many lawmakers -- including those backing McCain for president -- defend their efforts to use all available legal means to win money for programs desired by their constituents.

DeWine's spokesman said the Ohio senator disagreed with McCain on winning support for his state's projects. But DeWine endorsed McCain because of issues such as foreign policy and defense. "Senator DeWine doesn't agree with his wife about everything either, but they've been married for more than 30 years," said the aide, Charles Baesel.

In 1998, McCain criticized a bill for spending $28.2 million on a Greeneville, Tenn., courthouse that had not cleared all procedural hurdles but had been requested by Thompson, the state's senior senator.

Through a spokesman, Thompson said McCain's larger point rang true. "While I disagree with John on the merits of the Greene-ville courthouse specifically, I agree with him that we need to do a better job of examining how we are spending the taxpayers' money," Thompson said. In an interview, Gilchrest argued that the Maryland projects deserved funding despite McCain's reservations about the way the money was obtained. "In the democratic process that we have in Congress, members are going to try to push projects that are important to their districts," Gilchrest said.

An equal-opportunity critic, McCain even opposes some projects for his home state promoted by congressional allies.

Arizona's Kyl, for example, a member of the Senate committee that writes the spending bills, obtained $6.5 million in this year's budget for a new Border Patrol station in Douglas, Ariz. Kyl called for the added resources to reduce drug smuggling and illegal immigration along the border with Mexico, but McCain included the project among those criticized on his Web site.

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