Senior Fellow Kevin
There is an underappreciated angle to the story of how lawmakers steer federal funds toward their pet projects that may yet swing the next presidential election. Democrats have been so busy preparing the coronation of Hillary Clinton that they have failed to train a critical eye on her record.
When it comes to earmarks, an issue that voters responded to more than any other in the last election except for Iraq, her record is about as bad as it gets. If Dennis Hastert was the king of earmarks, Hillary Clinton was his queen. Republicans had their "bridge to nowhere." Hillary has her knitting mill.
Only Barack Obama has voluntarily made his earmark information publicly available. The others are covering their tracks.
The statistics speak for themselves. Ever since she arrived in Washington, Hillary has worked tirelessly to bring the pork home to her adopted state, New York. It used to be that such efforts were cloaked in secrecy. No longer.
To their credit, the Democrats made earmarks a central issue in the 2006 campaign and helped pass a series of reforms. Today, all earmarks are publicized in an online record which, most importantly, identifies the name of the member who submitted each request. Numerous online watchdog databases have since popped up, notably Taxpayers for Common Sense, which provides a directory of every earmark request for 2008 appropriations bills.
Oddly, this transparency has had a big effect on the Republican presidential candidates, but not on the Democrats.
Nothing to Hide
Among the presidential candidates, many Republicans currently holding office have responded to media requests to make public all their earmarks, including Representatives Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo. (Senator John McCain notably claims to not submit any such requests). They presumably have done so because they have nothing to hide.
On the Democratic side, however, the major candidates have been much less forthright.
Only Barack Obama has voluntarily made his earmark information publicly available. The others are covering their tracks. Senator Joe Biden's spokeswoman explained, "We don't release them until the committee has had the opportunity to review the requests." A spokeswoman for the Dennis Kucinich campaign argued, "We never have made our earmarks public."
The Clinton campaign refused to respond at all to requests that she identify her earmarks.
A little digging shows why they are so evasive. In fiscal year 2006, Chris Dodd and fellow Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman were jointly responsible for more than $100 million worth of earmarks for their home state, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Yet Clinton, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, placed $2.2 billion worth of earmarks in spending bills from 2002-2006. One would have to concede that she is good at it. In the fiscal 2008 defense-spending bill alone, Clinton successfully attached 26 earmarks worth $148 million, which was the most of any Democrat except Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is now chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
The earmark game is a treacherous one because it is so easy to find specific instances, like the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, that are repulsive to voters. With such a successful track record, this will be a genuine liability for Clinton.
Bury the Record
That probably explains why she's trying to bury her record. But even digging through the limited list of earmarks I could acquire suggested that Clinton has deftly spread federal taxpayers' money around to parochial projects of questionable public value, sending, for example, $250,000 to the Seneca Knitting Mill, and $200,000 to the Buffalo Urban Arts Center.
Such spending projects might be great local politics, but they produce national outrage as our federal dollars are bled away from health care and national security. Each one may seem small, but collectively they are not.
Clinton might want to join Robert Rubin on the high horse of fiscal discipline and rail against Republican deficits. But if she is the queen of pork, she loses her moral authority.
Make no mistake, voters are disgusted with our government. Clinton's biggest political liability has always been that she, the ultimate insider, may not be able to run as a credible agent of change. The earmark numbers are important, because an able opponent can accurately portray her pork barrel record as shameful. How can someone who is one of the biggest contributors to the problem be part of the cure?
If Democrats aren't careful, voters will ask themselves that question in the general election. It seems unlikely that the Republican nominee will have a pork-stained past. If so, Democrats may regret giving Clinton a free pass on the earmark issue during the primaries.
Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow at AEI.