Stimulus foes see value in seeking cash
Sen. Christopher S. Bond regularly railed against President Obama’s economic stimulus plan as irresponsible spending that would drive up the national debt. But behind the scenes, the Missouri Republican quietly sought more than $50 million from a federal agency for two projects in his state.
Mr. Bond was not alone. More than a dozen Republican lawmakers, while denouncing the stimulus to the media and their constituents, privately sent letters to just one of the federal government’s many agencies seeking stimulus money for home-state pork projects.
The letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, expose the gulf between lawmakers’ public criticism of the overall stimulus package and their private lobbying for projects close to home.
“It’s not illegal to talk out of both sides of your mouth, but it does seem to be a level of dishonesty troubling to the American public,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mr. Bond noted that one project applying to the USDA for stimulus money would “create jobs and ultimately spur economic opportunities.”
He and other lawmakers make no apologies for privately seeking stimulus money after they voted against it and continue to criticize the plan: “I strongly opposed the stimulus, but the only thing that could make it worse would be if none of it returned to the taxpayers of Missouri,” said Mr. Bond, who is retiring.
But watchdog groups say the lawmakers’ public talk and private letters don’t square, highlighting a side of government spending largely overshadowed by the “earmarking” process. While members of Congress must disclose their earmarks — or pet projects they slip into broader spending bills — the private funding requests they make in letters to agencies fall outside of the public’s view.
“There is a definite disconnect between the public statements and the private letters,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste. “It does seem inconsistent to say you’re against the bill but then you want some little piece of it.”
At a televised meeting with the House Republican caucus late last month, Mr. Obama chided GOP lawmakers who, he said, took credit for projects funded by the same stimulus bill they voted against — adding that some were even attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
But the USDA letters also reveal a more discreet way for lawmakers to try to steer money to home-state projects.
‘Misguided spending bill’
Several Republicans who sent letters to the USDA for home-state projects seeking an infusion of stimulus cash are facing competitive re-election races.
Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican who became famous after yelling, “You lie,” during Mr. Obama’s addresses to Congress in September, voted against the stimulus. Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson elbowed his way into the rush for federal stimulus cash in a letter he sent to Mr. Vilsack on behalf of a foundation seeking funding.
“We know their endeavor will provide jobs and investment in one of the poorer sections of the Congressional District,” he wrote to Mr. Vilsack in the Aug. 26, 2009, letter.
“Congressman Wilson’s position on the stimulus bill is consistent,” said spokeswoman Pepper Pennington. She said Mr. Wilson opposed the stimulus as a “misguided spending bill,” but once it passed, he wanted to make sure South Carolina residents “receive their share of the pie.”