Are windmills an earmark?

hardly a day goes by without the mccain camp bemoaning earmarks and quixotically vowing to eliminate them. mccain’s called them the “gateway to corruption”, he’s attacked obama for failing to cut them from the budget, he’s pretty much made this the central component of his budget plan.

but how much are these earmarks actually costing us?

“I can eliminate $100 billion of wasteful and earmark spending immediately–35 billion in big spending bills in the last two years, and another 65 billion that has already been made a permanent part of the budget.” ~ -John McCain, NPR All Things Considered, April 23, 2008.

$100 billion? well, i think we can all agree that’s a lot of money and can probably be better spent keeping us in iraq for even longer, but where’s mccain coming up with all this pork?

unfortunately, no one has been able to figure out how he arrived at this magic number; his chief economic adviser doug holtz-eakin has only provided vague details, telling reporters to look at a 2006 study by the Congressional Research Service. according to that study, however, earmarks total $56 billion.

okay so mccain was $44 billion off, no biggie. we can still buy a lot of bad mortgages with that kind of money, right?

well, no. what mccain apparently didn’t realize was that aid to nations like israel and egypt are considered earmarks by the CRS (about $3B and $2B, respectively). was mccain planning on cutting off aid to israel?

no.

so, what’s the bottomline number? according to an independent assessment, it’s close to $18.3B, which is less than 1% of government spending. here’s a handy little graph to show what we’re talking about here:

but even still, it’s not easy to just “eliminate” this 1% of wasteful spending. as the washington post explains:

How much of this $18.3 billion could be eliminated is a “difficult question that we have not yet figured out,” said Taxpayers for Commonsense vice-president Steve Ellis. The figure includes such items as $4 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which could not be eliminated without halting hundreds of construction projects around the country. Another big chunk goes to military construction, including housing for servicemen and their families, which McCain has also promised not to touch.

Bruce Riedl, a budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation, says it might be possible to eliminate roughly half the expenditure on earmarks every year, i.e. around $9 billion, using the Taxpayers for Commonsense figures. He identified $5 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds, most of which goes to local governments, as a prime target for cuts. Even if earmarks were eliminated altogether, many other expenditures would have to be shifted to other parts of the budget.

but don’t give up, don mccain.

i’m sure one of those windmills will turn into a dragon someday.

*edited to fix graph

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