WASHINGTON — Back in late February, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin met Sen. John McCain for the first time at a convention of U.S. governors, the two dished about a number of things, but mostly earmarks.
"We just talked about earmark reform and how it's going to happen," Palin said shortly after she attended a breakfast for Republican governors featuring McCain.
Since McCain announced last week that she would be vice presidential running mate, his campaign has worked to paint Palin as a crusader who took on two of the most successful appropriators in the history of Congress: her fellow Republicans and titans of Alaska politics, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. But Palin also sought earmarks, both as a governor and a small-town mayor — a position that is at odds with McCain's zero tolerance.
So what exactly is Palin's position on earmarks? Is it an opportunistic evolution mirroring a growing national distaste for the spending practice or true conviction that Alaska needed to be weaned from such federal spending?
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"My position has been in trying to read that writing on the wall, and understanding there's going to be reform, we can either put our heads in the sand and ignore the reforms that are coming," she said in a February interview. "Or we can be proactive and get Alaska in the position of being more productive, contributing more and becoming less reliant on the federal government."
Unlike McCain, though, Palin has not been a purist on earmarks. As Alaska governor, she sought and obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for the state, and as mayor of Wasilla, she hired lobbyist and former Stevens staffer Steve Silver to steer federal money to her town.
Some of her earmark projects when she served as mayor from 1996 to 2002 even landed on McCain's list of questionable congressional pork barrel spending.
"I think she will fit in really well in Washington, D.C., because she is already used to saying one thing and doing another," said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a key adviser to Sen. Barack Obama and one of the few Democrats who refuses to ask for earmarks.
"Not only has she taken them, she has gorged on earmarks," McCaskill said. "It's not what you say, it's what you do."
One thing is clear: Palin has increasingly distanced herself from earmarking since she made her first trip to Washington to lobby Congress for money in 2000. And over the past year, her stance has been the leading source of tension between Palin and the state's three-member congressional delegation.
Last year, when Palin announced the state was abandoning plans for the so-called "bridge to nowhere" in southeastern Alaska, she was met with what could kindly be described as a frosty reception from the delegation.
Her move embarrassed Stevens and Young — Stevens even complained publicly this spring that "the issue of earmarks and the way they handled the bridge money" made it challenging for him, Young and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to ask for any special federal set-asides for Alaska.
"It is a difficult thing to get over right now, the feeling that we don't represent Alaska because Alaska doesn't want earmarks," Stevens said in an interview at the time.
The three lawmakers were so infuriated that they began publicizing on their individual Web sites all the earmark requests they received from Alaska, just to point out the sheer volume, especially the number originating from the governor's office.
Palin's staff is quick to point out that the governor's office has sliced its federal requests since she took office.
For fiscal 2007, the administration of former Gov. Frank Murkowski submitted 63 earmark requests totaling $350 million, Palin's staff said.
That slid to 52 earmarks valued at $256 million in Palin's first year. This year, the governor's office asked the delegation to help it land 31 earmarks valued at $197 million.
Why the gradual move away from earmarks? Palin recognized that Alaska's coffers were overflowing with revenue from oil profits and felt it was almost unseemly for the state to press so aggressively for federal money, said John Katz, who heads the Alaska governor's Washington, D.C., office.
In December 2007, Palin's budget director put out a memo urging state officials who were assembling their department spending plans to reserve earmarks for compelling needs only, in an effort to "enhance the state's credibility."
"When she took office, we talked about the state's reliance on federal earmarks and she made it clear for several reasons she wanted to significantly cut back on that reliance," Katz said.
Several other factors contributed. The national mood was turning, in part because of the controversy of the proposed bridge, which would have linked the airport on Gravina Island to Ketchikan. That shift meant it would be harder to land earmarks, especially for Alaska. Also, Stevens and Young, while still senior lawmakers, faced a diminishing role in Congress when the GOP lost control to Democrats in 2006.
But former sinners are welcome into the anti-earmark fold, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the leading crusader in Congress for scaling back wasteful spending in Congress.
"Anybody that comes to Washington that wants to help change the process, and reform the process so that the next couple of generations have some hope, I'm all for them," Coburn said. "If she has a solid position now, I'm all for her. I think she's going to be just what the doctor ordered."
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