Palin's federal funds requests: earmarks or legislation? Update: Palin's cover letter on funding request

The Wall Street Journal throws a dash of cold water, and a deluge of ambiguity, on the reformer status of Sarah Palin today.  However, they confuse and conflate earmarks with funding legislation, and in the process never clearly report whether or not Palin’s anti-earmark pledge is supportable or not.  Palin’s administration asked for over $450 million in federal funding, but the question here is how:

Last week, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, hadn’t sought earmarks or special-interest spending from Congress, presenting her as a fiscal conservative. But state records show Gov. Palin has asked U.S. taxpayers to fund $453 million in specific Alaska projects over the past two years.

These projects include more than $130 million in federal funds that would benefit Alaska’s fishing industry and an additional $9 million to help Alaska oil companies. She also has sought $4.5 million to upgrade an airport on a Bering Sea island that has a year-round population of less than 100. …

During an appearance Friday on ABC’s “The View,” Sen. McCain said Gov. Palin shared his views, and hasn’t sought congressional earmarks. “Not as governor she hasn’t,” he said.

In fact, in the current fiscal year, she is seeking $197 million for 31 projects, the records show. In the prior year, her first year in office, she sought $256 million for dozens more projects ranging from research on rockfish and harbor-seal genetics to rural sanitation and obesity prevention. By comparison, her predecessor, Gov. Frank Murkowski, sought more than $350 million in his last year in office.

The level of federal spending requests have dropped under Palin’s administration both years, but quite obviously she still puts in requests for Congressional cash.  The question that the WSJ never really answers is how those requests come to Congress.  If they come in earmark form, then the McCain campaign has some explaining to do about its rhetoric the past three weeks.   If not, then this is a non-story, and in fact shows Palin weaning Alaska off of Washington’s largesse.

Earmarks are not equivalent to all federal spending, as McCain himself notes.  If these requests did not come in earmark form, then Congress has the opportunity to vote directly on spending the money in Alaska based on the legitimacy of the projects.  Earmarks, on the other hand, get slipped into bills without such Congressional scrutiny and are almost impossible to remove regardless of the uselessness of the project.

Also, it’s pretty easy to miss the fact that Governors can’t earmark, because they aren’t members of Congress.  Palin would have to rely on Ted Stevens, Lisa Murkowski, and Don Young to propose legislation for her funding requests, and none of these three have any hesitation to use earmarks rather than legislation.  Palin technically could legitimately say that she didn’t apply for earmarks on projects even if the Alaskan contingent used that process for their state’s requests, although it would be somewhat deceptive to try that as an argument.

The WSJ needs to report a little more specifically on the mechanism for these requests, and how Palin promulgated them.  The fact that Governors request federal spending shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the McCain/Palin claims on earmarks should be tested properly by the media.  At least the direction of federal spending requests have gone in the right direction, and the McCain/Palin team might be better advised to make that argument rather than apply Palin for earmark sainthood, which weakens McCain’s own heroic stand on that issue.

Update: It looks like Laura Meckler took her data from Alaska’s OMB list of federal appropriations requests.  This underscores the point that Palin didn’t ask for earmarks, but for federal funding for projects, which could have come from normal appropriations requests as well.  The mechanism gets chosen by Alaska’s legislators, not by the Governor.

Update II: Here’s the link to Senator Stevens’ site that lists “earmark requests”.   It has an extensive PDF file of funding requests from the State of Alaska, but still does not show these as specific requests for funding through the earmark mechanism — although, again, given Stevens’ proclivities, it would hardly surprise anyone that he attempted to fund them this way.

In fact, the cover letter from Palin’s office makes a mention of this:

In preparing these requests, the State has been mindful of congressional [sic] concerns about budget deficits and earmarks.  Accordingly, the total number of requests has been significantly reduced from previous years.  Approximately two-thirds of the requests involve programs that have been funded previously.

Nothing in this letter says that Palin wanted these funded through the earmark mechanism, and in fact specifically noted the “concerns” about the abuse of earmarks.  Stevens could just as easily have presented this in appropriations legislation.  Stevens made that decision, not Palin.