While Sen. John McCain was using the first presidential debate with Sen. Barack Obama to threaten to veto any legislation crossing his desk containing earmarks if he's elected president, his 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 so 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 it's known as a Christmas tree because of all the ornaments lawmakers hang on it for their friends, constituents, contributors and — here's the shocker — some very good causes.
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, if you remove the earmarks, you're halfway home to eliminating the deficit and rescuing the economy.
While $6.6 billion is an unfathomable amount of money for most of us, it is barely one 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.
McCain's no-earmarks policy also represents a costly threat to Israel, the beneficiary of an annual earmark of $3 billion in security assistance, plus millions more in other federal programs. The money is earmarked to protect it from the whims of administrations that might want to use that economic lever 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 full-time Washington lobbying (they prefer the term "advocacy") office to help federations and their beneficiary agencies get federal funding for their programs.
That's critical at a time when these groups are facing a big drop in contributions as a result of the economic crisis, especially in real estate, banking and Wall Street, the source of all that affluence for 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.
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.
The problem isn't earmarks, but the abuse of them. Selling earmarks in the defense spending bill sent Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) 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 Sarah Palin, whose state has the distinction of being the largest per capita beneficiary of federal earmarked spending. She told Charles Gibson of ABC News 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."
What's needed is a heavy dose of sunshine. Publish them, debate them, show who's behind them and who benefits, and then vote on them 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 and use it to taint the good stuff.
Not all earmarks are bad. Some of that pork can really be glatt kosher.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.