Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

John McCain made a name for himself with his attack on funding for politicians' pet projects. But now the grizzlies have bitten back
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The Independent Online

As in the wilderness, so in politics: don't mess with grizzly bears. That lesson has just been learnt the hard way by someone you would have thought was pretty good at looking after himself.

After all, John McCain survived five years in the "Hanoi Hilton", and locked up this year's Republican presidential nomination just a few months after his candidacy was declared dead. But where the North Vietnamese and the political soothsayers have failed, the grizzlies have succeeded. They've made him look a fool.

Among McCain's most engaging qualities as a politician is his readiness to take on vested interests, not least those of Capitol Hill. In particular, he has been an enemy of pork-barrel spending, technically known as "earmarks" – pet local projects that individual legislators slip into massive government spending bills.

Many are wasteful, some frivolous, verging on scandalous, and on the campaign trail McCain has delighted in singling out some of the most egregious. High on his list has been a $5m (£2.4m) scheme to study the DNA of grizzly bears in the mountains of western Montana. "I don't know if it's a paternity issue or criminal," McCain would joke about DNA testing for bears in his stump speech, "but it was a waste of money."

Now, however, the grizzly bear lobby is up in arms. Far from being a boondoggle, scientists involved say the project came in on budget. Far more importantly, it has played a vital role in measuring the success of efforts to protect Montana's grizzly population, long considered an endangered species.

Before such testing, no one had a clue whether a 1975 conservation measure was actually working. To find out, researchers placed barbed wire in thousands of spots where the bears were likely to pass, and gathered the hairs caught on the wire. From these they extracted DNA and built a statistical model of the overall grizzly population. It now seems there are far more of the bears than was thought. The species may soon even be taken off the endangered list.

Alas, what's good for the grizzly may be bad for champions of fiscal virtue. True, earmarks are down from their $24bn peak in 2005, but for the current 2008 budget year, almost 13,000 of them were attached to spending bills, roughly two dozen per congressman or senator, worth more than $18bn in all. Since 1991, earmarks have accounted for a quarter of a trillion dollars, and some of them have become national legends along the way – none more so than the "Bridge to Nowhere", a proposed $300m link between the Alaskan mainland and an island with 50 inhabitants, to replace a seven-minute ferry ride. That wheeze foundered after two years of ridicule, led by McCain. But scores of absurd schemes live on.

Everyone has their favourite earmarks. Mine include a $1.3m grant towards the study of obesity in the military, $1m to subsidise a telescope to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, $1m for a Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative in Michigan, and the $2m set aside to fund a Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program in Oregon. Then there's the $50m allocated for an indoor rainforest in Iowa, $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, North Carolina, as well as $200,000 for a National Peanut Festival in Alabama.

Most of the above are splendid specimens of Americana – I can already see huge highway posters for miles around proclaiming the wonders of the "world-famous" teapot museum. But the objection to them is not that they shouldn't be funded. It is that the money should come from the local state or city budget, decided after proper scrutiny – and not via a last-minute paragraph buried in a vast budget and passed on the nod.

It's not that people haven't tried to abolish earmarks, or at least place severe curbs on them. Only last week, McCain's latest attempt to do so was rejected by the Senate by an overwhelming 71-29 vote. "How hard it is to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan," the candidate lamented as he campaigned in Pennsylvania at the weekend, ahead of the next primary on 22 April.

And hard indeed it is. President after president has sought the "line item" veto, that would allow him to reject earmarks without throwing out the Pentagon's $500bn budget in the process. Every year non-profit watchdog groups huff and puff against them, but to scant avail. "It's my money," one congressman exploded after one recent attempt to outlaw the practice.

Suppress an earmark in one place, and it pops up in another. After the "Bridge to Nowhere" outcry, transport and infrastructure might have been a bit dodgy. But the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security has provided a perfect alternative: what's a little extra money for terrorism safeguards or natural disaster protection between friends? And even the Grim Reaper is no match for the earmark. Four Congressmen died and one resigned during 2007, before the bills containing their earmarks were passed. But the goodies were doled out nonetheless.

In one sense the persistence of earmarks is amazing. They are, after all, a prime reason for the dismal public standing of Congress. All too often they are rewards, direct or indirect, for organisations or special interests that have given money to the politicians who inserted them. After the bribery and influence-peddling scandals that sent tainted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the California congressman Randy Cunningham to jail, earmarks simply cement the impression that the lawmaking process is for sale to the highest bidder. That feeling in turn contributed to the Republicans' defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections.

But in another way, earmarks make perfect sense. The practice is as old as the republic. In a vast country, it provides a link between a lawmaker and the people he represents, and a more efficient means of targeting a local need than the decision of a federal official. In the case of the Pentagon, who could say 1,000 earmarks are a greater waste than the billions of dollars spent on the war in Iraq? And just ask the Montana grizzlies: sometimes an earmark can be a very good thing indeed.

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