Sarah Palin continues to make the claim that as governor she refused pork-barrel spending on Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere." But the real story is more complicated — and her claim matters to a GOP ticket that has declared war on government waste.
Most lawmakers like to brag about the federal funds they bring home. Not Sen. John McCain.
"In 25 years, I haven't even brought a post office to my state," the Arizona Republican said during his appearance on Saturday Night Live in the spring. "And I'm proud of the fact that because of my work, when residents of Flagstaff want to mail a letter or to pick up a package, they have to drive to New Mexico."
That's a slight exaggeration, but it's not that far off the mark. McCain regularly boasts that he has never asked for an "earmark" to fund a pet project in Arizona, and he talks more about things the federal government should not spend money on than the things it should.
McCain told supporters back in February that Republicans' biggest failing was not launching an unpopular war, but playing fast and loose with the federal treasury.
"Look, why did we lose the 2006 elections, we Republicans?" he asked. "It wasn't because the war in Iraq, and I'll talk about that in a minute. But it was because we let spending get completely out of control."
In his presidential bid, McCain has promised to eliminate earmark spending. His economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin says McCain is counting on saving up to $100 billion a year that way to offset the cost of his promised tax cuts.
"Those are, by definition, dollars that are fair game if you want to focus on genuine national priorities and not have a budget that's a reflection of the service to special interests," he said.
But saying "no" to special interests isn't easy despite, what McCain's own running mate might say.
"I championed reform of earmark spending by Congress," Palin said. "And I told the Congress, 'Thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere.'"
Bob Weinstein is the mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska, where the "bridge to nowhere" would have been built. He says that Palin never told Congress anything. He points out that Palin supported the bridge when she was running for governor. And, while she did eventually cancel the bridge after Congress pulled most of the funds, Alaska kept the federal money it received and used it for other projects.
Weinstein also notes that Palin had no problem going after earmarks when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
The city hired its first lobbyist during her tenure and received nearly $27 million worth of earmarks, or about $3,000 for every resident of Wasilla. As Alaska's governor, Palin has sought earmarks totaling $750 million.
"So, when I see the McCain campaign or Sarah Palin herself saying that she's championing earmark reform, it's important that what she is doing in Alaska is examined," Weinstein adds.
To be fair, Taxpayers for Common Sense notes both Palin and Obama have dialed back their earmark requests. Obama didn't seek any earmarks this year. Alaska sought about $200 million worth, down 25 percent from a year ago.
Palin's example shows how difficult it may be to cut spending, as much as McCain wants to. What opponents like to call "pork," supporters call "bringing home the bacon."