Stimulus, earmark critics try back door for funds

October 18, 2010

Audie Cornish

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Congress passed the economic stimulus bill in early 2009, but with the unemployment rate still above 9 percent, the bill is a prime target of criticism and contempt on the 2010 campaign trail.

That doesn't mean lawmakers haven't been trying to get their hands on some stimulus money for their districts. Indeed, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity finds that some of the bill's biggest critics worked behind the scenes to get a slice of the pie.

One of the major selling points of the stimulus bill was that it was supposed to be free of congressional earmarks -- those little flags lawmakers plant in legislation claiming money for pet projects. President Obama celebrated the bill on its anniversary.

"I'm grateful that Congress agreed to my request that the bill include no earmarks," he said, "that all projects receive funding based solely on their merits."

But the Center for Public Integrity has discovered that lawmakers, instead of going through the congressional earmark process, have written directly to federal departments with backdoor requests for stimulus funds. It's a practice known as lettermarking, says John Solomon, an investigative journalist for the center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.

"The letters one day were on my desk, and they were a foot high. ... I couldn't look over my desk and see my colleagues across the hallway," he says, "because literally there was a mountain of paper."

An About-Face

The center collected the letters using federal agency sources and the Freedom of Information Act.

The Obama administration tried to insulate the bill from lettermarks by ordering agencies not to consider the requests, Solomon says. But the calls and letters poured in, he says, from everyone from Democrats who had crowed there would be no earmarks to Republicans who had panned the stimulus bill for failing to create jobs.

"But when they wrote the letter to try to get money for their local district or local company, they said, 'This project is going to create jobs, and we hope you give it stimulus money,' and so their letters undercut the arguments they make politically on the campaign trail or on FOX and MSNBC," he says.

For instance, when the stimulus passed, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander spoke out against the bill on the Senate floor.

"It is not temporary. It is not targeted. It is not primarily creating jobs. It is not a stimulus bill. It is mostly a spending bill," he said.

But Alexander later wrote letters to the Transportation Department seeking stimulus grants for local projects he said would spur job creation.

Half a year after the bill passed, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told CNN the stimulus was a big mistake.

"I think we can fairly safely declare it now a failure," he said.

But that fall he wrote the Transportation Department endorsing a state application for stimulus funds for a rail project.

This year, conservative Democrat Walt Minnick of Idaho -- one of seven Democrats to vote against the stimulus bill -- is running ads touting his opposition.

"I've had to say 'no' far more than I've said 'yes.' I've said 'no' to government spending," he says in them.

But Minnick wrote the Commerce Department at least three times lobbying for stimulus funds for broadband projects.

None of these lawmakers would agree to a taped interview with NPR.

But staff from the offices of Minnick and Alexander issued written statements defending the right to aid constituents who ask for help. They said the lawmakers didn't necessarily get the grants they sought, and when they did, it was based on merit and competitive bidding.

Seeking Transparency

The Center for Public Integrity calls its report "Stimulating Hypocrisy."

"Well that's a strong word. Inconsistent for sure," said Republican Jim Walsh, a former New York congressman who is currently a lobbyist with K&L Gates.

Walsh served 20 years in the House, many of those on the Appropriations Committee. He says what matters more than the request is the response.

"When I was looking at bills and members were railing against earmarks and requesting them at the same time -- that was duly noted," he said, meaning that those lawmakers who had earlier opposed earmarks didn't receive funding.

Without journalists and researchers filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, there's no way for the public to know whether lettermarking is effective, says Ryan Alexander of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"If the agencies get letters from members of Congress, they should make them public immediately. They should not wait for a FOIA," he said. "They should be clear about how those letters may or may not influence their decisions."

Now that these letters are public, investigators at the Center for Public Integrity say they hope to see voters demand more transparency from lawmakers. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.