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Stimulating hypocrisy: Scores of Recovery Act opponents sought money out of public view

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Rep. Pete Sessions, the firebrand conservative from Dallas, Texas, has relentlessly assailed the Democratic-passed stimulus law as a wasteful "trillion dollar spending spree" that was "more about stimulating the government and rewarding political allies than growing the economy and creating jobs."

But that didn’t stop the Republican lawmaker from reaching his hand out behind the scenes to seek stimulus money for the suburb of Carrollton after the camera lights went dark and the GOP campaign against the 2009 stimulus law quieted down.

The affluent city’s rail project is “shovel-ready,” Sessions wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in February, urging his cabinet agency to give “full and fair consideration” to the city’s request for $81 million in stimulus money, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Ironically, his letter suggested the project would create jobs, undercutting the very public argument he has made against the stimulus.

“Carrollton’s project will create jobs, stimulate the economy, improve regional mobility and reduce pollution,” the lawmaker wrote.

When asked about the letter, Sessions suggested to the Center that he did not want his “strong, principled objection to the bill to prevent me” from getting his congressional district its share of the massive spending pot. 

Sessions was hardly alone.

Scores of Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act subsequently wrote letters requesting funds for projects in a massive, behind-the-scenes letter-writing and phone call campaign, documents obtained by the Center show. 

Those asking for money include Tea Party favorites like freshman Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former presidential candidates Ron Paul and John McCain and Republican congressional leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.

Many Democratic leaders who had boasted they prevented lawmakers from inserting special spending requests in the stimulus law when it passed also engaged in the behind-the-scenes letter writing to secure funding afterwards, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the Indiana Democrat now running for U.S. Senate, originally voted against the stimulus plan but later came around to cautiously supporting it. He collected $6,500 in donations from Duke Energy’s political action committee in the months just before and after he wrote an August 2009 letter supporting the utility giant’s ultimately successful request for an Energy Department grant, the Center found. Ellsworth’s office declined comment.

The letters particularly dismay conservative advocacy groups like the Tea Party and Americans for Tax Reform that have been backing Republicans in the fall election but now see a touch of hypocrisy among candidates they thought were conservative champions of federal spending cuts.

“The GOP should not be taking this money and spending it regardless of where it came from,” said Rob Gaudet, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “They should be fighting against it with every fiber of their elected beings.”

Mattie Corrao, the Executive Director of Americans for Tax Reform’s Center for Fiscal Accountability, said the letters show “it’s about self-interest” when it comes to federal spending.

“Politicians just want to keep their jobs,” she said. “In no way should anyone be buying into that failed argument [for the stimulus]. But the case is the money is going somewhere, and people who want to stay elected and see it as politically beneficial are going to do it.” 

Over the last year, isolated reports of lawmakers and governors seeking funds from a single agency handing out stimulus money have surfaced in the news media. The Center set out to determine how widespread the practice was and who engaged in it.

Using both federal agency sources and the Freedom of Information Act, the Center collected a stack of letters a foot high detailing nearly 2,000 requests from lawmakers in both parties to secure funding from a law designed to stimulate the sagging economy. The Center obtained a total of more than 1,500 of these letters from just three departments: Transportation, Energy, and Commerce.

The correspondence provides a stark example of the gulf between political promises and action.

When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, President Barack Obama boasted it was free of so-called earmarks that have been used by lawmakers for years to steer federal monies to their pet projects. Earmarks have become a symbol of corrupt, wasteful Washington spending.

“We’re not having earmarks in the recovery package, period,” the president-elect declared even before his inauguration, promising the stimulus grant award process would create a “new higher standard of accountability, transparency, and oversight.”

The law promised to pump $787 billion into the American economy to “create new jobs and save existing ones, spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth, [and] foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending.” A portion of the money was passed out to various government agencies, which in turn decided what projects should be awarded grants.

While the legislation passed through Congress without any traditional earmarks, lawmakers have worked behind the scenes, cajoling agencies to secure stimulus money for their favored projects for constituents and donors.

The practice — known among lobbyists as “lettermarking”  — has been controversial for years. For instance, infamous superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, since convicted on charges related to fraud and bribery, often arranged for lawmakers to send letters to agencies pressing for appropriation funds, then followed up with donations to the lawmakers who acquiesced.

The White House said it anticipated lawmakers would resort to such a strategy, so Obama issued a directive in March 2009 to agencies telling them they must weigh all grant requests on the merits regardless of political pressure.

“No considerations contained in oral or written communications from any person or entity concerning particular projects…shall supersede or supplant consideration by executive departments and agencies of such projects … for funding pursuant to applicable merit-based criteria,” the president’s executive order mandated.

The “lettermarking” following passage of the stimulus law nonetheless created a system of political pressure that has been less transparent than if lawmakers had attached their earmarks to the legislative language, which would have allowed the public to see who pushed for what project, spending experts said.

While earmarks remain a serious issue, the lack of obvious earmarks “created a vacuum where lettermarking became a way for people to try to exploit [the process] and pursue the funding … under the radar,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that has long opposed earmarks.

One of the most famous critics of earmarks and pork-barrel spending — former presidential candidate and current Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — joined the letter-writing crowd after the stimulus law he voted against passed.

McCain, who made running against pork a key plank of his 2008 presidential campaign, sent a letter offering his “conditional support” for Department of Transportation funds for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “My longstanding policy is to treat fairly all Arizona entities applying for federal programs, and I feel it is important not to endorse one applicant over another,” wrote McCain, who also noted that he was writing at the request of the City of Phoenix.

In response to a FOIA request from the Center, the Department of Commerce handed over stacks of paper documenting the lettermarking process in the stimulus bill.“These funds are for a specific purpose that will usher into our community a much more tightly knit transit system alternative to the private automobile. … The TIGER discretionary grant deserves your consideration within existing rules, regulations, and ethical guidelines.”

That grant was not awarded. McCain also wrote three letters to the Department of Commerce. The three closely mirror the Transportation letter and serve as cover letters for attached official requests.  McCain’s office did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment.

Sessions, the conservative Texan, continued his assault on the stimulus law while trying to justify his request supporting a stimulus grant for Carrolton, Texas. The city did not win the grant.

“The Democrats’ stimulus bill is an abject failure that has cost taxpayers $1 trillion while over 3 million additional Americans lost their jobs. I voted against this borrow-and-spend policy last year, and I would again today if given the chance,” he told the Center in a written statement.

“What I have not done is allow my strong, principled objection to the bill to prevent me from asking federal agencies for their full consideration of critical infrastructure and competitive grant projects for North Texas when asked to do so by my constituents.”

Sen. Scott Brown’s first press conference after being sworn in.Brown, the Massachusetts Republican upstart who shocked the political world earlier this year when he captured the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for half a century, said shortly after his swearing in that the stimulus “didn’t create one new job.”

That didn’t stop him from writing a letter less than two months later in support of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). In the letter, Brown writes that proposed stimulus projects like MBI’s will “help prepare our next generation of entrepreneurs and job creators.”

MBI was eventually awarded a $45.4 million in stimulus funding. Brown’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A reporter from the New England Center for Investigative Journalism went to Brown’s home in Massachusetts, where the senator acknowledged he opposed the stimulus but considered it a “minor” part of the various policies he opposes. He then asked the reporter to leave. The reporter was subsequently stopped by police after she left and questioned why she went to the senator’s home for fair comment.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., another icon of the anti-spending conservative movement embodied by the Tea Party, has complained the stimulus bill will require “massive tax increases” to create short-term jobs and ran a campaign ad this month boasting that she fought against “the failed Pelosi trillion-dollar stimulus.”

But she wrote more than a half dozen letters to federal agencies on behalf of proposed stimulus grants, including one to the Transportation Department for the St. Croix River Crossing Project that she argued “would directly produce 1,407 new jobs per year while indirectly producing 1,563 a year – a total of 2,970 jobs each year after the project’s completion.” The project did not win the award.

Bachmann told the MinnPost news site, which worked with the Center on this project, that she still opposed the stimulus because it “piled a massive amount of debt on our children and grandchildren” but saw nothing wrong with her letters. “It is my obligation as a member of Congress to ensure stimulus dollars are spent on the most worthy projects. I did just that when I supported applications for the TIGER grant program.”

Freshman Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, who voted against the stimulus, later submitted two letters to the Department of Transportation requesting funds for projects in his district, including a request for streetcar renovations in New Orleans that were awarded a $45 million grant. 

Spokesman Taylor Henry told the Center that the congressman had no problem writing the letters after opposing the bill, as he voted against it for a nonpartisan reason.

“Congressman Cao voted against the stimulus package because it placed his district dead last among the nation’s 435 House districts in the amount of funding it provided,” wrote Henry.

“He felt he could not in good conscience vote for a bill that did not provide his district the funding it deserves. His subsequent efforts to secure stimulus money for projects in his district are part of that ongoing quest to get funding for the district’s recovery.”

Democrats who have endured months of GOP attacks for supporting the stimulus law said their Republican colleagues are trying to have it both ways.

“I find it interesting that congressional Republicans are happy to attend the ribbon-cuttings and take credit for the improved infrastructure and the newly created jobs resulting from Recovery Act investments. But back in Washington, D.C., these same people oppose the Recovery Act,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., an unabashed supporter of the stimulus and the renewable energy projects it has funded.

“Apparently, for Congressional Republicans, the only good Recovery Act investments are the ones made in their own districts,” he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, wrote at least two letters requesting funds for broadband-related projects in his home state. He told the Center that lawmakers should consider making public their letters to federal agencies seeking federal monies to achieve even greater transparency in the aftermath of the earmarks controversies.

“It is the responsibility of members of Congress who supported the Recovery Act to make agencies aware of worthy investments and economic development opportunities in their communities. What is troubling is the hypocrisy of those who opposed the legislation and claimed it produced no jobs, while simultaneously asking federal agencies to support projects in their districts to spur job creation,” Van Hollen said.

“Greater openness has been a hallmark of this Democratic Congress, and I am open to exploring additional measures that might make the funding process even more transparent,” added Van Hollen.

Like their Republican counterparts, Democratic critics of the stimulus also sent letters seeking funding afterwards.

Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho — one of just seven Democrats in the House to vote against the stimulus bill — had warned “the consequences of this bill will be painful and possibly harsh for those tasked with the burden of paying for what has been passed today.”

In the time since, though, Minnick wrote a series of letters to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, requesting funds for four different broadband-related projects within his state. 

Minnick declined to speak with the Center, but his communication director, Dean A. Ferguson, stated that Minnick “voted against the bill, but said from that day forward that his obligation is to help his constituents. So he went to work not only writing letters but also making people aware of the many new rules and procedures.”

Ferguson sees no problem with the lettermarking system, because agencies, ultimately, have final say in where the funds go. “Agencies make final decisions on these projects. In some cases, projects Walt supported did not receive funds. They were competitively awarded, and thus not earmarks.”

Minnick “believes that the entire appropriations process should become public, transparent, and competitive — like these grants.”

The behind-the-scenes pressure for stimulus dollars is particularly sensitive for Republicans, who have wooed the Tea Party movement with an incessant attack on stimulus spending as wasteful and ineffective. In fact, the House GOP’s “Pledge to America” campaign manifesto specifically promises to rescind all unspent stimulus dollars if Republicans regain control of Congress in the November elections.

But some of the GOP’s architects of the anti-stimulus campaign themselves tried to secure money from the program, including McConnell, the Senate leader, and Pence, a spending hawk often mentioned as a 2012 presidential contender, who also helped craft and sell the GOP’s “Pledge to America.” 

In July of 2009, McConnell told CNN that “The stimulus was a big mistake. I think we can fairly safely declare it now a failure.” Two months later he signed five letters requesting funds from the Department of Transportation for a variety of stimulus projects, including a railroad rehabilitation program that he said could “attract industry, create jobs, and move goods through areas underserved by national highways.”

At least one of McConnell’s requested projects was accepted, with $20 million being earmarked by the Department of Transportation for a bridge replacement between Milton, Ky., and Madison, Ind.

Lamar Alexander, the senior Senator from Tennessee, is another prominent GOP leader who voted against the bill, calling it a “colossal mistake” during debate. He has since written at least eight letters requesting funds. Several of these projects, he wrote, “will provide both short-term and long-term benefits” to “economically disadvantaged and distressed” regions in his state.

Spokesman Jim Jeffries told the Center that Alexander voted against the stimulus “because it was too much spending and too much debt for too little benefit to the economy.” However, he adds, “Republicans lost that fight and the money is being spent, and because Tennessee taxpayers are footing part of the bill, they have a right to apply for the funds.”

All told, five members of the GOP’s leadership — including McConnell, Pence, Sessions, Alexander, and Washington Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers — sent letters requesting that funds be funneled to more than a dozen projects. All voted against the bill.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., wrote at least one letter requesting funds for three San Francisco broadband proposals. Another top House Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, sent at least eight letters on a variety of projects. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election fight in Nevada this year, wrote at least eight letters.

Pelosi, writing jointly with Congresswoman Jackie Speier, supported the “San Francisco Community Broadband Opportunities Program.” The project would “create 580 jobs, advance the goal of NTIA and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and greatly benefit the people of San Francisco.”

Reid wrote a series of letters asking for grants from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. One such grant, for the Lyon County School District, notes the county has the second highest unemployment in the country and says the project would “ease Nevada’s unemployment rate and support the goals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to stimulate economic growth, create and sustain jobs, and enrich our communities.” Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Center that “Elected officials routinely support their constituents’ efforts before the federal government; that is part and parcel of their job as representatives of their constituents.”

Maggie Mulvihill of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Derek Wallbank of MinnPost.com contributed to this report.