As a First-Term Senator, McCain Railed Against His Own Pork

September 16, 2008 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

On the campaign trail, Sen. John McCain frequently decries earmarks and pork-barrel legislation, proudly bragging that he has never requested a single earmark for his home state of Arizona. However, a news article and a scathing editorial from The Arizona Republic during his first-term as the state’s junior senator reveal that McCain did, in fact, go outside the normal legislative process to secure funding for at least one pet project for Arizona. He also supported appropriations for at least two more — three projects that, much to his embarrassment, he later railed against as “pork.”

In 1991, McCain was embroiled in the The Keating Five Scandal, in which he and four other senators were implicated in a corruption investigation connected to the Savings & Loan crisis. Though McCain was cleared of wrongdoing in August, he was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising poor judgment for meeting with federal regulators on behalf of one of his major fund-raisers, Charles Keating Jr., the chairman of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. Keating would spend four and a half years in prison for fraud and racketeering following the bank’s failure.

Facing re-election the following year, McCain sought to salvage his damaged reputation by re-branding himself as a champion of government reform and a foe of wasteful spending. According to the article from The Arizona Republic dated June 14, 1991, McCain joined with two other senators and nine House members June 13 to introduce legislation to rescind more than $1 billion in funding for 325 federal pork-barrel projects in the 1991 budget that had not yet been spent.

“Listen, my friends, the system is broke, and this is the way to start fixing it,” McCain announced at a news conference. “There may be legitimate projects on this list, but I assure you, they are the exception and not the rule.”

According to the article, within hours of the news conference, McCain’s press secretary, Scott Celley, announced three Arizona projects on the list “could be ‘justified’ and ‘would pass muster’ if they went through the traditional process of hearings.”

In an interview, McCain said, “I’m not criticizing the projects, I’m criticizing the process. You can make a big-deal story about John McCain opposing three Arizona projects. I’m sure it will make good copy.”

There was just one problem. McCain had circumvented the “traditional process of hearings” to secure the funding for one of the Arizona pork projects he was now criticizing, and supported the other two.

Among the projects that made McCain’s “pork list” were the construction of a forestry-science center at Northern Arizona University, the expansion of a border-crossing station at Mariposa, 10 miles west of Nogales, and the paving of a road in the Black Mesa area of the Hopi Indian Reservation, which for generations has been at the center of a land dispute between the Hopis and Navajos.

The projects were called pork because they were not subject to hearings, were awarded without competitive bidding, or were of purely local interest and not of national importance, among other reasons.

“The funds for the dubious local projects were ‘snuck through’ the normal budget process,” a McCain news release said.

However, McCain, along with Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, wrote a letter in July 1990 to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation funds, specifically asking for $5.5 million for the Black Mesa road…

The project was given $4.7 million, apparently through actions by Lautenberg outside the normal legislative process.

“It seems pretty weird ,” said Bob Maynes, press secretary for Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who is increasingly at odds with McCain. “I just don’t understand it. He (McCain) appears to have done exactly what he is criticizing.”

The article also notes that Celley, McCain’s press secretary, said McCain had supported the NAU forestry center, but pointed to $4.5 million appropriated for its construction from the Federal Buildings Fund, as pork. Celley said McCain also supported the $10.6 million expansion of the Mariposa border-crossing station.

McCain said he didn’t know what the Arizona projects were and said he would not comment on their merits.

“I have no comment, because I do not know if they are good or bad or indifferent,” McCain said. “They might be the most good and valuable project that all civilization rests on, I don’t know, but if they did not go through the correct process, then I think they are wrong.”

According to the article, this was apparently not the first time McCain had gone around the normal legislative process to fund pet projects.

Celley admitted that McCain has worked in the past to push appropriations through in whatever manner was necessary.

“We have worked for them (appropriations),” he said. “Letters were written about these projects, and the senator may have talked with people to work their way through.”

A June 15, 1991 editorial from The Republic recounted the episode, lambasting McCain’s hypocrisy.

While Mr. McCain spoke [at the news conference], a news release from his office thundered that “the funds for the dubious local projects were ‘snuck through’ the normal budget process.” In other words, these boondoggles had bypassed public hearings, the preferred practice for all 535 members when it comes to funding home-district projects that cannot stand on their own merits.

Much to his discomfort, Mr. McCain subsequently learned from a reporter that three Arizona projects were to be found on the diabolical list. In fact, Mr. McCain himself had sought funding for one of them, $4.7 million for the Turquoise Trail road, which would link Navajo and Hopi Indian communities.

“Oh, my God, is there three?” a chagrined Mr. McCain sputtered. “Oh…really? Is there really three in there?…I’m just shocked.”

Later on, the senator averred that what was really at issue was the “process,” not the projects themselves, although in the earlier news release he described the projects as “dubious.” Finally, Mr. McCain even back-pedaled on whether they actually had “snuck through” the process.

Had Mr. McCain attacked the process and even singled out those three Arizona projects as examples of extravagant spending, he could have made an important point. Instead, he was left defending his pet projects while criticizing everyone else’s pork-barreling. And that is precisely why Congress cannot get spending under control.

Even on McCain’s signature issue — his supposed career-long opposition to pork — he is not telling the truth.