WASHINGTON — Lindsey Graham's close friendship with John McCain doesn't matter one wit when it comes to the Arizona senator's disdain for congressional pork.
Eleven days ago, McCain set aside all the jokes and insider confidences he and Graham had shared on the presidential campaign trail last year and during their many previous trips to Iraq or Afghanistan when he hung his South Carolina buddy out to dry.
McCain "tweeted" Graham on March 4, complaining to thousands of people following McCain on Twitter about Graham's $950,000 earmark to help build a new convention center in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
On his daily list of the Top 10 "porkiest projects" in a $410 billion spending bill then before Congress, McCain listed the Myrtle Beach center at No. 6.
Graham chuckled over his pal's scorched-earth tactics.
Then the South Carolina Republican pointedly disagreed.
"I agree with John McCain that we need (earmark) reform, but I am not embarrassed at all about trying to get the Small Business Administration to build a new convention center in Myrtle Beach ,” Graham said. "The reason people know about it is I put my name by it."
Graham said funding the convention center is part of his larger effort to boost the Grand Strand region’s economy by also building the I-73 freeway and expanding the Myrtle Beach International Airport .
"I do not believe that it is inappropriate for a member of Congress to have a say about how federal dollars are spent in his or her state," Graham said in an interview. "I have tried to be prudent and reasonable by supporting projects that help the military or help my state create jobs and improve the quality of life."
That stand puts Graham squarely at odds with fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
DeMint — one of seven senators who sought no earmarks in the $410 billion appropriations measure — thinks Congress should have no say in how federal funds are distributed back home.
"That's the way our Constitution set the government up," DeMint said. "The executive branch is supposed to carry out the goals we set. We give them money to do it. Our role is oversight. If we're spending it, we don't oversee. We create a constitutional conflict of interest by become the executive branch ourselves."
Scarcely two years after DeMint forced Congress to remove 10,000 earmarks from an earlier omnibus appropriations bill, the debate over lawmakers’ right to deliver federal largesse to their constituents is as fierce as ever.
When President Barack Obama signed the massive spending measure into law last Wednesday, DeMint accused him of reneging on a campaign promise to observe a one-year earmarks moratorium because the bill contained almost 8,600 of the local appropriations worth $7.7 billion.
"Clearly, Washington is changing him before he's changing Washington ," DeMint said. "What we're seeing is a president who’s being changed by a system that's controlled by big-spending appropriators."
Obama said the spending bill took shape months before he took office. He promised future earmark reforms.
Yet, DeMint declined to criticize Graham, a fellow Republican from his own state, for securing $40.6 million for 37 projects.
DeMint also refused to pull a McCain and target any of the projects Graham helped fund.
"Lindsey Graham has supported our work to change the whole earmark system, but he and other members of Congress believe that as long as money is being appropriated this way, he's going to ask for it for our state," DeMint said. "I happen to believe that if I'm going to lead this effort, I can't ask for earmarks."
The $410 billion spending bill, which carries additional funding beyond the $787 billion stimulus measure Obama signed into law last month, contains discretionary domestic appropriations for part of the federal government through September. Congress earlier passed separate 2008-09 fiscal year spending bills for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
Earmarks for local projects are still a political lightning rod, even though they make up less than 2 percent of the total funding.
The appropriations bill has nearly $71 million for South Carolina projects, putting it at No. 40 among all states. At $15.83 per resident, South Carolina also ranks 40th in per-capita earmark spending.
Graham's $40.6 million haul for South Carolina puts him at No. 72 among the 100 senators.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, secured $36.1 million in earmarks for 31 projects, some of which he and Graham worked together to get. That total ranks Clyburn 50th among the 435 representatives.
The state's other Democratic lawmaker, House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt of York, secured $6.8 million in earmarks, placing No. 300.
Clyburn and Graham differ on many major policies, ranging from how the United States should counter terrorism or tax Americans to how Congress should reform healthcare and entitlement programs.
Yet the two men share similar views of the roles they and other lawmakers should play in deciding where — and on what — at least some federal monies should be spent.
“Earmarks, when implemented lawfully, have a legitimate and worthy purpose and should be able to stand up to public scrutiny and review," Clyburn said. "I believe that as an elected representative … I have a better sense of the needs of my district than a nameless bureaucrat in any administration."
Graham made the same argument in sharper terms.
"I can assure you that there are bureaucrats in the federal government who have a different view of what’s important than I do," he said. "We shouldn’t let a few bad apples taint what I think is a legitimate use of political power. What makes an unelected bureaucrat smarter than someone who stands in front of the public?”
Graham added a partisan twist.
"I can assure you that in a Democratic administration that's full of a bunch of liberals, I'm going to have a say in how the money is spent," he said.
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