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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.
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.”
On Feb. 13, 2009, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, issued a statement criticizing the stimulus — but two days earlier, he privately forwarded to Mr. Vilsack a list of projects seeking stimulus money.
“I believe the addition of federal funds to these projects would maximize the stimulative effect of these projects on the local economy,” he wrote.
Mr. Bennett is up for re-election and facing several Republican challengers. Last month, the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth announced that it was opposing his nomination for a fourth term.
“It is absurd to require Utah taxpayers to foot their portion of the bill associated with stimulus spending and then ask them to forgo competing for those funds without the input of their congressional representatives,” said Bennett spokeswoman Tara Hendershott DiJulio.
Also facing a competitive race, Rep. Pat Tiberi, Ohio Republican, in October called the final Democratic stimulus bill “loaded with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s grab bag of big spending wishes” and that it “saddles future generations with mountains of debt.”
He struck a different tone in a letter to Mr. Vilsack.
“While this project is intended to expand rural broadband in Alaska, I understand that the project could support businesses and jobs in communities across the country,” Mr. Tiberi wrote, citing one such company in his district.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Tiberi said he is just fighting for jobs in his district.
“Congressman Tiberi didn’t support the stimulus bill, but when it comes down to parts of the bill that are actually going to support jobs, he’s going to come down on the side of supporting businesses and Ohio jobs,” Tiberi spokeswoman Breann Gonzalez said.
Other Republican lawmakers who wrote on behalf of projects applying for stimulus money don’t have any re-election worries anytime soon.
Before his vote against the stimulus, Sen. Mike Johanns, who took office last year from Nebraska, predicted that “the money would simply never reach the economy.”
A secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush, Mr. Johanns later told the Grand Island, Neb., Independent newspaper that “it would be hard for me to imagine that we are going to be creating many jobs here.” Yet he saw the prospect of at least a few dozen jobs in a letter he later sent to Mr. Vilsack for a home-state project, records show.
“The proposed project would create 38 new jobs and bring broadband to eight hospitals, five colleges, 16 libraries and 161 K-12 schools,” Mr. Johanns wrote.
E-mails and calls to Mr. Johanns’ office were not returned.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, who easily won re-election in 2008, said of the stimulus, “This is spending, not stimulus.”
In a letter to Mr. Vilsack for a project applying for stimulus money, Mr. Alexander noted, “It is anticipated that the project will create over 200 jobs in the first year and at least another 40 new jobs in the following years.”
Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for Mr. Alexander, said the senator believes his constituents have a right to apply for stimulus funds.
“Sen. Alexander voted against the stimulus because it was too much spending and too much debt for too little benefit to the economy,” Mr. Jeffries said. “Republicans lost that fight and the money will be spent, and because Tennessee taxpayers will end up footing part of the bill, they have a right to apply for the funds.”
Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, called that philosophy troubling.
“It’s hard to expect lawmakers to behave like angels when this much money is being airdropped all over the country,” Mr. Sepp said. “But the more strident the rhetoric, the worse it looks. For me, with these grants where they’re saying a project is going to create a certain number of jobs, it makes you wonder: Do they really believe that? Or is it just part of a cynical cash grab?”
Getting their ‘fair share’
Ranked among the most conservative members of the House by the American Conservative Union (ACU), Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican, posted a blog item on his Web site on Oct. 21, stating that recent unemployment figures “only reinforce the fact that the $787 billion ‘stimulus’ signed into law eight months ago has done nothing for job growth in this country.”
Two weeks earlier, Mr. Linder had sent a letter to Mr. Vilsack backing an application for stimulus money by the Elauwit Community Foundation, records show. With unemployment in Georgia topping 10 percent, “the employment opportunities created by this program would be quickly utilized,” Mr. Linder wrote.
Mr. Linder said the letter doesn’t change his staunch opposition to the stimulus.
“I have opposed every stimulus plan that has come before Congress because it is simply bad policy, but if they pass, the communities in my district which are paying for them deserve to be equally considered in their benefits,” Mr. Linder said.
Another House member who has scored high ACU rankings, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama Republican, also voted against and criticized the stimulus.
“Rather than create jobs or stimulate the economy, this massive spending bill was a laundry list of programs that focused on states with big-city urban communities,” he wrote in the Oct. 4 edition of the Daily Mountain Eagle newspaper.
Three days later, Mr. Aderholt sent a letter to Mr. Vilsack on behalf of a foundation seeking stimulus money to expand broadband services in his district.
“Congressman Aderholt supported some of the ideas in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but disagreed with much of it and that’s why he voted against it,” Aderholt spokesman D.J. Jordan said.
“Since the bill was passed and became law, the congressman wanted to help a local foundation receive some of the broadband money that otherwise would go to another state.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, called the stimulus “excessive” and voted against it, though she noted that money in the legislation would benefit her state. She, too, wrote to the USDA to support Alaska projects seeking stimulus funds.
“I opposed the stimulus bill as did most of my colleagues in the Republican caucus, but it was passed in Congress and signed into law,” she said, when asked about her support for project seeking stimulus funds.
“When constituents come to me asking for support in a competitive application process for funding for broadband expansion, I am happy to support their request. I will always fight to make sure my state gets its fair share of available federal dollars,” she added.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was yet another lawmaker who voted against the stimulus and later backed applications for stimulus money in two letters to the Agriculture Department.
“If the funds are there, Senator Grassleys going to help Iowa, rather than some other state, get its share,” spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said.
According to records, at least eight other Republicans lawmakers who voted against the stimulus later sent letters to the USDA backing various projects’ stimulus applications.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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