A top House Republican is demanding an investigation into whether the more than $2 billion for national parks in the House stimulus package is proper in light of the fact that the chief lobbyist for the National Parks Conservation Association is the son of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey.
NPCA is a major player in advocating for national parks funding, and its senior vice president for government affairs is Craig Obey, son of the Wisconsin Democrat who has long been his party’s top Appropriations Committee member.
The money included in the stimulus bill that passed Mr. Obey’s committee - $2.25 billion - was about equal to the National Park Service’s total yearly budget, and would be a staggering increase and almost three times the $802 million that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved for park spending in its stimulus bill.
On Wednesday evening, the House passed the $819 billion stimulus bill by a 244-188 vote, though every Republican in the chamber and 11 Democrats voted against it.
Republicans said a bill of this size presented too many opportunities for mischief, pointing to the parks funding as one such case. Just before the vote, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called for an investigation into the parks money.
“It really does beg the question of, is this an earmark, is this a family connection and should it have been disclosed at least in the spirit of what the Democrats said they wanted, and the answer is it should have been disclosed,” Mr. Issa said.
Tom Hill, legislative representative for NPCA, said the group, including the younger Mr. Obey, refrains from lobbying Mr. Obey or his office to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
“Craig certainly never lobbies his father, and takes pains to make that crystal clear. NPCA has been laying the groundwork for years about the NPS maintenance backlog which [the Government Accountability Office] says is over $8.5 billion, and the House leaders have historically been very supportive of the national parks. The Senate tends to be more conservative, particularly where public land issues are concerned,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Obey said the funding for parks had nothing to do with Mr. Obey’s relationship with his son and was included at the request of Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, and that it was a popular request. Mr. Dicks is chairman of the subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies.
“There is wide support for these funds,” spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said. “There are a lot of places where we can put people to work today in construction projects in national parks.”
But a spokesman for the top Democrat on the Senate panel defended its far lower figure as the right amount for the job.
“Given the time frames we are working under, we are very comfortable with our numbers,” said Rob Blumenthal, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.
“We believe that we are providing the National Park Service with the appropriate amount of funding that will meet the primary goals of this legislation: providing an immediate stimulative boost to the economy by creating jobs, and rebuilding our national infrastructure, of which our national parks are an integral part,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
House aides and watchdog groups said it’s unlikely that Mr. Obey’s son lobbied his father directly on the bill because a firewall provision for family members would prevent that.
The House and Senate bills have giant disagreements in other areas, including NASA and homeland security money, where the Senate bill outbid the House version.
George Behan, a spokesman for Mr. Dicks, said the fund requests did go through the Washington Democrat’s office, and that the high dollar amount is part of the congressman’s long-standing commitment to dent what the interior secretary says is a $9 billion backlog of projects.
“What this stimulus bill allows us to do is make up for a lot of the backlog,” Mr. Behan said, blaming the Bush administration for shortchanging parks in its budgets.
Mr. Issa, though, said the request was so large that it raised questions - not least because he doubted the Park Service could spend a fraction of the money during the next two years, when the stimulus bill is supposed to be critical.
“It gives them a slush fund they can use for all kinds of things for years to come,” Mr. Issa said, adding that the big discrepancy between House and Senate funding raised the question of whether the money was a payoff of some sort.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the total of the House spending request closely matched the NPCA’s own wish list, issued late last year.
“When these numbers come close to somebody’s wish list, I think it’s critical to look and follow up on how this money gets spent on the other side,” he said.
Mr. Issa said parks money raises the question of whether there’s a political payoff for Democrats, and he said the same question should be asked about many items in the bill.
“Are there tens or hundreds of billions of dollars going out to groups that will in fact politically be helping the majority or the president in their re-election?”
He said he would like the oversight committee to look at the size of the House bill and whether it bears any relation to what the Park Service requested.
While the House Appropriations Committee approved $2.25 billion, on late Tuesday night the House Rules Committee removed $200 million of parks funding designating for refurbishing the Mall in the District after that item drew opposition. That money was not in the bill that passed the full House on Wednesday.
The removal was striking because it came only hours after President Obama personally defended the spending in a closed-door meeting with House Republicans and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs defended it to reporters.
“I think that you can make a very credible case - and the economic team has - that reconditioning the National Mall will create jobs, probably through spending in small businesses,” Mr. Gibbs said