02/14/2008 10:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Political Battle Over Earmarks

A new report today from Taxpayers for Common Sense on earmark abuse confirms what I wrote last month in this article, that earmarks will be a major issue in the fall elections if Hillary Clinton is running against John McCain, and this is one of the major policy differences between Obama and Clinton being ignored in the press.

Today's front-page story in the Washington Post about earmarks reflects this fact: "McCain is using his blanket opposition to earmarked spending as a regular line of attack against Clinton, even running an Internet ad mocking her $1 million request for a museum devoted to the Woodstock music festival."

According to the report, Hillary Clinton ranked number 9 in Senate earmarkers with $342,403,455 in earmarks (almost all of them in conjunction with other lawmakers, which is an easy way to gain cover). She was the leading earmark recipient among senators not on the Senate Appropriations Committee, showing how devoted she is to getting earmarks. Obama, by contrast, only supports earmarks for schools and hospitals, and ranked in the bottom quarter of senators with $91 million in earmarks.

Unlike Clinton, Obama has gotten legislation passed to require a searchable database for earmarks to make government more accountable. (Clinton opposed Obama's proposal to have all earmark requests made public, not just the earmarks that are approved; Obama is one of only two senators who release all of their earmark requests.)

McCain deserves credit for opposing all earmarks and refusing to request any of them. But Obama's position (trying to fix a flawed system while still requesting money for his state) is more honest. Obama could simply let Dick Durbin request money for Illinois and keep his hands clean, as McCain allows his colleagues to request earmarks while standing by and never challenging them. Instead, Obama tries to make the system more honest even while he's a part of it.

As this report from the Democratic Party notes, McCain also does pork barrel legislation, just not through earmarks. Among other things, in 2006 McCain sought $10 million for launched a University of Arizona center honoring William Rehnquist. In 2003, McCain got $14.3 million added to a bill that wasn't requested by the military for an Arizona Air Force base. And McCain's chief fundraising strategist, Tom Loeffler, is a lobbyist whose job is to get pork from DC.

In the fall, neither Obama nor McCain will have the upper hand in a battle over corruption in Washington, since both of them have fought against it. The same can't be said of Hillary Clinton, who will be accurately tarred as part of the sleazy Washington establishment. Clinton's defense of lobbyists at last year's YearlyKos convention in Chicago was one of the most embarrassing moments of her inevitable campaign, where she defended the corrupt system in DC: "A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They represent nurses, they represent social workers, yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people." The Wall Street Journal editorialized that it was "Hillary's Finest Hour," but real Americans aren't going to buy the line that lobbyists represent them.

Note: I'm the author of a new book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest, but I'm not part of the Obama Campaign.

Crossposted at ObamaPolitics.