A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Outrageous’ Exaggerations

McCain's ad revisits some oft-mentioned examples of pork, but is he really the one who rooted them out?


Summary

Republican presidential candidate John McCain cites three absurd-sounding examples of pork-barrel spending in a recent ad: a “bridge to nowhere,” a study of the DNA of bears and a Woodstock museum.

McCain is known for fighting against earmarks, the other term lawmakers use for funding of pet projects back home. But he appears to have chosen these three because they’re easy to mock, not because he had significant involvement in removing them from the budget.

  • He never specifically went after the “bridge to nowhere,” and he was absent for key votes on its funding.
  • While he tried to cut money for several other projects in the same bill, he never proposed cutting the bear study and voted for the final bill containing it.
  • He wasn’t present for the most important votes on the Woodstock museum, including one on an amendment he co-sponsored to kill the earmark and divert some of the funds.

Analysis

John McCain’s ad, “Outrageous,” which began running November 12, touts the Arizona senator’s long-standing fight against pork-barrel spending. The ad includes three examples of projects that McCain deems unnecessary and claims that “one man” has “the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending.”

It is indisputable that McCain has been a vocal opponent of earmarks, and indeed of all government spending that he considers wasteful (he has said that Congress spends money “like a drunken sailor”). He has been recognized for his efforts both by the media and by taxpayer advocacy groups.

But the three examples of spending highlighted in the ad – a “bridge to nowhere,” a study of bear DNA and a museum dedicated to Woodstock – seem chosen more for their impact than for any direct involvement McCain had in attacking them. In fact, he voted in favor of the bill that included the bear study funding; he was absent for key votes on the Woodstock museum (including one on an amendment he co-sponsored); and he never specifically tried to eliminate the bridge earmark and missed some crucial votes on that one, as well.

For what it’s worth, we’ll note that the three projects together cost a little under $300 million, which is a tiny fraction of yearly earmark activity. The Office of Management and Budget reports that the fiscal 2005 budget included 13,492 earmarks totaling $18.9 billion dollars. The taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste gives a higher estimate for that year – 13,997 projects for a total of $27.3 billion – and estimates that 2006 earmark activity cost $29 billion. That would make earmarks account for about 0.2 percent of the gross domestic product.

A Bridge to Nowhere

McCain’s ad cites “$233 million for a bridge to nowhere,” calling the cost “outrageous.” Funding for the “bridge to nowhere,” also known as the Gravina Island bridge in Alaska, was tacked on to a 2005 transportation bill, along with projects from many other states. Whether it was truly a “bridge to nowhere” is debatable: Gravina Island, while it has almost no permanent population, is also home to the Ketchikan International Airport, which processes about 200,000 passengers a year. Alaskan officials hoped that the bridge would simplify airport access and allow development on Gravina, according to Alaska’s Department of Transportation. The bridge was not the only or the most expensive project attached to the transportation bill, and it may not have been the most frivolous. But it became a symbol for government pork.

John McCain 2008 ad: “Outrageous”

Announcer: $233 million for a bridge to nowhere. Outrageous. $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable. A million dollars for a Woodstock museum in a bill sponsored by Hillary Clinton. Predictable. Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man, John McCain.
McCain: I’ll stop wasteful spending by Congress and restore Americans’ trust in their government. I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

The transportation bill did include a total of $223 million (not $233 million, as the ad says) earmarked for the Gravina bridge – $100 million for construction, plus $18.75 million a year for four years, and an additional $48 million to build an access road. McCain tried, unsuccessfully, to add a “sense of the Senate” amendment to the bill, stating a general objection to earmarks; in the end he voted against the legislation. Several months later, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to divert the Gravina funds to a bridge in need of repair over Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. McCain was not present to vote on Coburn’s amendment proposing this change, which did not pass. Instead, Congress removed Gravina’s earmarks, tossing that money into Alaska’s general transportation pot to be used however the state chose. McCain wasn’t there for that vote, either.

In light of the furor over the “bridge to nowhere,” Alaska’s governor opted to use the money for other pursuits. The bridge was never built, but McCain has been using it as his prime pork example since 2005, even blaming it for the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007. (He cited it as an example of a pet project that diverted money from necessary highway maintenance.)

Paternity Tests for Bears

The ad goes on to criticize an earmark that provided “$3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana.” This is not the first time McCain has poked fun at the bear project. He first mentioned it on the Senate floor, while discussing the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that included funding for the project:

McCain (Senate floor, Feb. 13, 2003): Because these appropriations are never discussed with nonmembers of the Appropriations Committee, one can only imagine and conjure up an idea as to how this might be used. Approach a bear: That bear cub over there claims you are his father, and we need to take your DNA. Approach another bear: Two hikers had their food stolen by a bear, and we think it is you. We have to get the DNA. The DNA doesn’t fit, you got to acquit, if I might.

Good laugh lines, maybe, but the United States Geological Service’s Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project didn’t study DNA for paternity tests or forensics. Rather, it explored a means of estimating Montana’s grizzly bear population by analyzing bear fur snagged on barbed wire. The project was funded partly by federal appropriations – about $1 million per year in add-ons to USGS in 2003 through 2005, $400,000 in 2006 and $300,000 in 2007, plus a $1.1 million earmark through the Forest Service in 2004, according to the study’s principal researcher, Katherine C. Kendall. Part of that funding was doled out as part of the omnibus appropriations bill McCain discussed in February 2003.

Despite the fun McCain had ridiculing the bear project on the Senate floor, he didn’t actually try to remove it from the bill. He did introduce several amendments, including three to reduce funding for projects he considered wasteful or harmful, but none removing the grizzly bear project appropriations. And despite his criticisms, he voted in favor of the final bill.

A Hippie Museum

The last earmark McCain highlights in the ad is $1 million for a Woodstock museum, which, he mentions not-so-subtly, was proposed by Sen. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential contender. The earmark would have allotted $1 million to New York state’s Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, future site of a museum celebrating the 1969 Woodstock music festival and its effect on American culture.

But McCain wasn’t present for the vote on an amendment he co-sponsored (spearheaded again by Coburn) to remove the stipulated funding for the museum and reroute about a third of it to maternal and child health services. He was out on the campaign trail.

It’s true, as the McCain campaign points out, that McCain’s vote would not have changed the outcome. Still, we wonder whether voters might have a different view of McCain’s ridiculing of the museum not just in this ad but in two others, as well as a presidential debate, if they knew of his absence for the key votes.

The ad claims that “one man” has the audacity to stand up to “wasteful government spending,” but in fact, several men were actively involved in removing the Bethel Woods Center earmark: Coburn led the charge, and Republicans Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jim DeMint of South Carolina were co-sponsors along with McCain. McCain was the only one to miss the vote.

Where’s the Beef on Pork?

As we noted, we do not dispute that John McCain has been a tireless crusader against earmarks. In fact, in another recent ad, “Guts,” McCain focused on the 2003 Boeing scandal, in which McCain was considered to be the harshest critic of a wasteful government contract; he was described by the New York Times as having “almost single-handedly thrown one roadblock after another before the arrangement.”

But in this ad, with its focus on issues in which McCain played a minor role, we find that he is overstating his case and misleading his viewers.

Media

Watch McCain Ad: “Outrageous”

Sources

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.R. 3: Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. 109th Congress, 1st session. 29 July 2005.

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.R. 3058: Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006. 109th Congress, 1st session. 20 Oct. 2005.

Coburn, Tom. SA 2165 to H.R. 3058. 109th Congress, 1st session. 20 Oct. 2005.

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.J. Res. 2: Consolidated Appropriations Resolution, 2003. 108th Congress, 1st session. 13 Feb. 2003.

United States House of Representatives and United States Senate. H.R. 3043: Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008. 110th Congress, 1st session. 7 Nov. 2007.

Coburn, Tom. SA 3321 to H.R. 3043. 110th Congress, 1st session. 16 Oct. 2007.

Wayne, Leslie. “Unusual Pentagon-Boeing Deal is Attacked.” 10 June 2003.