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NOT LONG AGO, Republican presidential candidate John McCain claimed he could double the Bush tax cuts while adding millions in government spending for health care for veterans and home-mortgage relief, among other worthy causes.

He asserted that he could find much of the money to fund his platform "tomorrow," by vetoing all congressional "earmarks." That would save $52 billion right there.

But when tomorrow came, McCain was in full clarification mode. Turns out that the definition of earmarks he had vowed to veto includes an annual $2.9 billion in aid to Israel.

It also includes the majority of foreign-policy aid, funding for several Army Corps of Engineers projects, housing for military families and the rebuilding of courthouses. These expenditures are labeled "earmarks" by the Congressional Research Service, but clearly they are not the

pet pork projects that we routinely condemn when other people's representatives win them

for their own districts. In fact, many things McCain called earmarks when he boasted of

how much money he could save would have

to be funded from other parts of the budget.

Other surveys put the total amount of what we spend on classic earmark projects much lower.

For example, the nonpartisan budget watchdog, Taxpayers for Common Sense, says earmarks cost $16.8 billion for fiscal year 2008 - less than 1 percent of the total federal budget.

McCain's math, as fuzzy as a bath towel, last week garnered him the highest level of deceit from the "Fact-Checker" column in the Washington Post - four "Pinocchios."

The Republican was indeed talking straight when he admitted to reporters that he doesn't know much about the economy. But the episode also highlights the temptation for terming earmark money the root of all evil - and its elimination as the magic wand that can pay all our debts.

Many of the 11,234 earmarks tucked into congressional spending bills this year funded worthwhile programs in hospitals, universities and museums. Others have gone to build "bridges to nowhere" and to fund noncompetitive contracts for private companies that represented windfall profits for legislators' friends and relatives.

The problem with earmarks is less the money they may waste than their potential to undermine national priorities and advance "pay to play"-style corruption. It's no surprise that the overwhelming majority of projects deemed worthy of federal funding just happened to be in the districts of powerful members of the House and Senate appropriations committees -as well as those who face significant opposition in the fall elections.

Earmark reforms instituted last year by the Democratic Congress have taken the first tiny steps toward increased transparency by requiring sponsors of the earmarks to be identified, although major barriers persist. The reforms appear to have reduced the number of earmarks by 23 percent from their peak in 2005.

MUCH MORE transparency is needed, but even when it comes, politicians of either party likely will forego all earmarks around the same time as $2-a-gallon gas comes back.

Still, some politicians continue to tell us that we can have expensive government programs, wars and lower taxes at the same time - all we have to do is eliminate "waste, fraud and abuse." They don't know much about the economy either.

However worthwhile the goal, reducing congressional earmarks won't begin to fix our nation's money problems. Pinocchio has a better chance of passing a lie-detector test. *