04/24/2008 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain the "Pork Enabler"

In light of the growing controversy over McCain's earmark flip flop/confusion, it is worth pointing out that McCain has a long history of talking tough and doing very little when it comes to busting pork.

Winslow Wheeler, a former defense staffer to Senator Pete Domenici now at CDI, was forced to leave the senate after he released a paper under the pseudonym "Spartacus" titled Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands in the Way as Congress Laces Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork. Wheeler was shocked at the growing abuses in defense spending after 9-11 and how almost no members of congress were doing anything about it. John McCain received particular scorn Wheeler, who had a front row seat for Senate defense appropriations proceedings, noted that McCain would simply go through the motions of verbally attacking out of control spending but would actually do nothing to stop it. Wheeler called McCain the "pork enabler."

Writing in the Washington Post in 2004 Wheeler described the McCain charade:

Even Capitol Hill's self-proclaimed "pork buster," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has made a regular practice of calling his colleagues on their gluttony, has essentially given the gorging a wink and a nod. As usual, McCain performed the very useful task of highlighting many of the amendments, tallying up the cost and offering appropriately caustic remarks about his colleagues' penchant for "porking up our appropriations bills."

...Both McCain and the press were just going through the motions. With [Senator Ted] Stevens in a big rush to push the defense bill through in just one day, McCain helped speed things along by not taking the time to actually deliver his speech. Instead, he simply had Stevens insert the text into the Congressional Record. Stevens was probably happy to extend McCain this courtesy. Not only did the unspoken speech not draw undue attention to the Senate's goings-on that day, but McCain was also helping out by taking no parliamentary action against the pork-laden bill. He didn't even throw up a speed bump by seeking recorded roll call votes, let alone any real debate, on the pork amendments. Roll call votes take at least 15 minutes each, and spending that much time on a few dozen amendments was apparently more inconvenience than McCain was willing to impose. Worse still, McCain's printed speech also praised the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee, which had passed a bill authorizing the defense spending."

Here are the key grafs on McCain from Wheeler's "Mr Smith is Dead:"

But with Senator McCain, the buck does stop; unlike Harry Truman, it stops short of his desk. He gives the good speech, expresses his outrage, lectures his colleagues, and stirs up the place with an occasional, short delay. But then he walks away. When it comes to action--meaningful action--Senator McCain is only a paper press release tiger. In a constitutional system specifically designed to equip a minority--even of one--with the parliamentary weapons to bring the system to a halt unless and until the minority is given some level of satisfaction, Senator McCain has unilaterally disarmed himself.

Of the dozens of tactics available to him to bring the Senate into legislative agony--tactics many others have used to achieve their own ends--Senator McCain has chosen to sit on his hands. His doing so is all the more remarkable because more than any other Senator, he has informed himself of the garbage packed into Congress' defense bills. Knowing at least as well as any other just what is going on, he finds it somehow going too far to put an end to it with the many tools at his disposal.

By assuming this role--i.e. the self-anointed, but also self-disarmed, crusader against "pork"--Senator McCain has made himself not the Senate's "pork buster" but its "pork enabler." If the worst the Congress' most outspoken opponent of pork is going to do is give a speech, there is clearly no meaningful downside. In the absence of any real action, Senator McCain appears to be seeking the appearance of a reformer without the substance. In the final analysis he sinks to the level of the rest: he seeks to be accepted for something he is not. The others seek to be taken as patriots and statesmen while they snatch what they can for their self-advancement. In the Indochina War, Senator McCain proved his patriotism on a daily basis for many painful years, but these days he seeks, just like all the rest, to be seen as something that his actions--or rather inactions--belie.