Trying to leverage a little symbolism out of his campaign announcement, Carroll Campbell III announced that he would be running for Congress with the USS Yorktown floating in the Charleston harbor behind him.
He called the landmark "a strong reminder of those who lost their lives protecting our liberties and freedom."
What Campbell likely didn't realize is that the Yorktown plays a much larger symbolic role in his effort to unseat fellow Republican Henry Brown.
The five-term congressman is being targeted by Campbell on the right and national Democrats on the left after a surprisingly close race last November against Charleston resident Linda Ketner.
In his announcement, Campbell called Brown out for his unapologetic approach to earmarks — spending based on a Congressman's politicking instead of solely on a project's merit or value.
A frustrated Brown points to the Yorktown as an example of the work he's trying to do in Washington through the earmark process. With the support of state Senate leader Glenn McConnell, Mt. Pleasant, and Patriots Point, Brown has requested $20 million in federal dollars for the Yorktown and the USS Laffey. He argues the work, as a part of a larger redevelopment effort, would bring 796 new jobs to the area. The state has floated a more than $9 million loan for immediate repairs to the Laffey. Patriots Point officials are hopeful that Brown's earmark pitch is successful, making it easier to resolve the debt for those repair bills.
"We've got needs in our district," Brown says of earmark requests. "It's necessary funding to get things done."
GOP vs. GOP
There are some pretty deep themes in Charlotte's Web, but if there's one lesson even the youngest among us can grasp from the classic story, it's that one man's pork is another man's prize-winning pig.
"In the old days, it was expected of a good legislator to feed the district," says David Mann, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
But complaints over earmark spending became the conservative indignation du jour with the rise of penny-pinching Sen. John McCain. But even McCain can't match the resolve of South Carolina's Sen. Jim DeMint, who refers to himself as "The Earmark Grinch."
DeMint has argued that local projects should be forced to prove their value.
"If we're not tying up all the money they have on earmarks, then it will be done on criteria and merit," he told the City Paper in 2008. "I don't want that money to go to Alaska or West Virginia."
Alaska and West Virginia are singled out because both states receive far more per capita than South Carolina. In the 2009 omnibus spending bill, both ranked in the top 10, with South Carolina at a distant 38.
By and large, the debate in Washington over earmarks isn't a partisan problem — it's a fight within the Republican Party. And it's a struggle for some members who want to stand on fiscal principles, but don't want to see opportunities pass them by. In early 2008, Congressman Joe Wilson, the latest Republican hero, put a one-year moratorium on earmark requests.
"My decision was not a reflection of the value of the many important requests I have received, but rather a response to a wasteful system that does not reward merit and which puts well-deserving projects at a disadvantage," Wilson said in a statement to The Beaufort Gazette at the time.
A year later, the fast is over and Wilson is back at the trough, making a pitch for more than $100 million in earmarks for law enforcement, infrastructure, and the military.
Campbell vs. Brown
Campbell made it clear in his campaign announcement, he's against earmarks. And he apparently doesn't care too much for pig products, either.
"Mr. Brown has been cited multiple times for promoting earmarks," Campbell said. "He will argue he is bringing home the bacon. Well, that's exactly how our nation has gotten into debt. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been in the Wendy's restaurant business. And, when I take a look at Mr. Brown's record, I have to ask, 'Where's the beef?' Unfortunately, Mr. Brown's beef is nothing but pork."
Campbell's point, besides making voters hungry: "I will fight against the big spending liberals in Washington, not join them in a spending spree."
The problem with attacking earmarks as a means to restore fiscal discipline is that it's like cutting off a tip of your finger when the whole arm is infected. A study released this summer by professors from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina noted that earmarks account for $17 billion of $2.9 trillion in federal spending in 2009 — far less than one percent of all spending.
In last year's race, Brown argued that his decade in Washington was an asset. Similarly, the congressman says that Campbell's earmark criticism betrays his challenger's naiveté.
"It's a real lack of understanding of the process," Brown says.
It's a challenge to get federal dollars directed explicitly back to an individual
The budget process leaves little room to assure resources will get back home, particularly for a member in the minority party.
"The only hope is to create an earmark," Brown says.
The system has been tainted by abuses, but he argues the whole reason for representation in Washington is to bring back federal resources to your district.
"If not, you wonder what's the purpose of having legislators," Brown says.