- The Washington Times - Friday, August 15, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

More than a year before launching his White House campaign, Sen. John McCain wrote a letter urging the Bush administration to set aside tens of millions of dollars to build a new port of entry in Arizona to allow more trucks to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Five weeks after he joined the U.S. Senate, Sen. BarackObama and other lawmakers from Illinois sent a letter to the administration in support of a grant proposal by the University of Chicago at a time his wife was earning a six-figure salary at the university’s medical center.

The letters from both presidential candidates, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal a side of the budget process largely overshadowed by the “earmarking” practice that Mr. McCain frequently assails on the campaign trail. With increasing negativity surrounding earmarking, by which members of Congress slip pet projects into broader bills, lawmakers frequently push for projects in their home states by sending requests directly to federal agencies.

Such spending requests, sent privately to agencies, fall outside the public’s view and don’t achieve the sort of budget transparency that both presidential candidates have argued is essential for controlling spending.

“It’s becoming more and more common as the subject of earmarking becomes more controversial,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Aides to Mr. McCain cite his $42 million request for the San Luis, Ariz., port of entry in the fiscal 2007 budget as an example of exactly how members of Congress should encourage federal money for worthy projects back home. The letter was sent after the project failed to receive funding in the fiscal 2006 budget. It won funding in 2007.

“Senator McCain encouraged, based on the merits, that the administration fund a project in the submission of its budget [that] would be subject to debate in the House and the Senate,” McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said. “You make your case and let the regular order of the legislative process determine whether it’s a national priority. That’s precisely how the process is supposed to work.”

He pointed out that the General Services Administration (GSA) had requested the funding and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection listed the project as its highest priority for the southern border.

Ms. Sloan said the request is still troubling.

“It may not technically be an earmark, but it certainly looks like an earmark,” she said. “He says he doesn’t earmark, but then he sends a letter like this. When [the letter] says, ‘I urge you to fully fund,’ it looks like an earmark.”

Tom Schatz, president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, said Mr. McCain’s letter doesn’t meet the earmarking definition because it’s a project for which the GSA had requested funding.

Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, agreed, saying the request at some point would be subject to congressional hearings.

“Is this an earmarked request? By most definitions, probably not,” Mr. Sepp said.

Mr. Obama has disclosed hundreds of millions of dollars in earmark requests he has made since taking office in 2005, but he, too, sought support for home-state initiatives by writing letters. In February 2005, the junior senator signed a letter with several other lawmakers from Illinois to the Bush administration in support of the University of Chicago’s request for a competitive multimillon-dollar grant.

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