Last night moderator Jim Lehrer pressed the candidates about what spending priorities they would postpone or cancel in response to the financial crisis (a bit of framing I find maddening). In the heat of the debate I was irritated with Obama for not countering the frame directly. Going back and watching, though, he did seem to stick to his guns on certain important investments. Watch the debate:

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Don’t miss the analysis of McCain’s supposed spending cuts from In particular, note this about earmarks:

But contrary to popular belief — this is the first of several bits of information readers may be surprised by — cutting earmarks wouldn’t necessarily cut government spending, according to independent budget experts from across the political spectrum. Jeff Patch, a budget fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute (and also a former McCain volunteer) told that “earmarks just direct funds from executive agencies to specific projects or companies.” That is, while there are still a few pet projects slipped into legislation in the dark of night that do increase the federal budget, earmarks often simply tell agencies how to spend money that they are already getting. So while earmarks may drive up the cost of government slightly (by, for example, awarding no-bid contracts in a legislator’s home district), cutting earmarks alone is “not sufficient for cutting wasteful spending,” Patch said. The Brookings Institution’s Paul Cullinan, research director of the Budgeting for National Priorities Project, agrees, saying that earmarks “might be an allocation issue” rather than a spending issue. And Scott Lilly, a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress, told us that “there’s no evidence that if you took earmarks out, federal spending would go down.”

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And (surprise #2) McCain now says that many earmarks aren’t really wasteful spending at all. For example, in 2006 the Congressional Research Service counted 75 percent (or $15.7 billion) of the 2006 foreign operations budget as earmarks. That figure includes $4.3 billion in aid to Israel and Egypt. Another $16.1 billion was earmarked for military construction and veterans affairs, and $9.4 billion more was earmarked for defense spending. That’s $41 billion – or more than two-fifths of the amount of earmark spending McCain cites. But McCain has no plans to cut those particular earmarks. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s chief economic adviser, told that “if you don’t have earmarks, a lot of those things would be funded under regular order, if they have merit.”

See also McCain’s Phony Earmark Ploy: “earmarks are a tiny fraction of the federal budget — less than 1 percent in 2008.”

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