WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann has campaigned saying the stimulus was a “failure” and has criticized it repeatedly, including in a Townhall.com blog in January headlined “Stimulus is not creating jobs.”
Yet despite her vocal opposition to the law, the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus quietly sent at least six letters to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urging stimulus funding for transportation projects in her district.
In one of them, in support of $300 million in spending for the $700 milliion replacement-bridge project crossing the St. Croix River, Bachmann cited a MnDOT estimate that the project would create nearly 3,000 jobs. In others, she noted that the projects would have economic benefits beyond just the projects in question, spurring development and private sector hiring in the communities surrounding the proposed stimulus projects.
All of Bachmann’s letters [PDF] say she is writing to “highlight an important project” submitted for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grants. Each letter closed by thanking LaHood and the Transportation Department “for your consideration this Sixth District project” and provided a staff member’s phone number in case the department had additional questions.
She wasn’t alone. Scores of lawmakers who adamantly opposed the stimulus when it was enacted (and have campaigned by saying they have or would have opposed it) later on requested money for stimulus-funded projects.
Scott Brown, the Tea Party darling who broke the Democrats’ “filibuster-proof” majority after winning a special election in Massachusetts, asked for funding despite having once said the stimulus “didn’t create one new job.” GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Pete Sessions — as well as some conservative Democrats like Tea Party-endorsed Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho — did the same thing.
This all despite the fact that the GOP and conservative Democrats have made opposition to the stimulus law a central piece of their campaign this fall, attacking what they call excessive and wasteful government spending. In fact, repealing unspent stimulus dollars is a key part of the House Republicans’ Pledge to America, the document that purports to outline how the GOP would govern if it took back the House.
Doing your job or having it both ways?
The stimulus funding requests were obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Public Integrity — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to investigative journalism. The CPI and MinnPost independently verified that the requests detailed in this article were from pots of money wholly funded by the stimulus.
Bachmann blasted the stimulus overall but defended the requests in a statement to MinnPost:
“I continue to oppose the so-called stimulus package because it has been a failure. It has failed at job creation, has wasted millions on everything from ‘smoking cessation activities’ to ‘tax breaks for Hollywood movie producers’ and has piled a massive amount of debt on our children and grandchildren.
“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.”
Rep. Keith Ellison said he didn’t see a distinction between voting against the stimulus (which he supported) and then trying to get stimulus money for projects at home.
“It would embarrass me to do it, I would be ashamed to do what Michele does, but then again she doesn’t know shame,” he said.
In some cases, request letters came from parts of the stimulus that lawmakers said they supported, though they voted against the entire bill.
For example, Erik Paulsen said the day the stimulus passed the House that it was the “height of fiscal irresponsibility,” though he was clear to clarify that road and bridge funding was “valid government investment.”
“You can be for transport projects, and transportation infrastructure and I think you can absolutely support that without backing all the wasteful spending and pork in the stimulus bill,” said Paulsen spokesman Mark Giga. “If it was just an up or down vote on those transportation projects, I don’t know how you can’t get 435 votes for that because that’s exactly what government should be doing.”
Paulsen, who voted against the stimulus, noted in a letter to LaHood [PDF] dated Sept. 15, 2009, that a plan to add an interchange to Interstate 94 in Dayton was an “outstanding example of a transportation improvement achieving both the goals of the TIGER program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” (the official title of the stimulus law).
There was a “broad consensus” that the Brockton Lane interchange project, Paulsen continued, would act “as a catalyst for significant economic growth and job creation.” Not just for the immediate jobs, he noted, but for indirect secondary jobs, citing a figure of $1 billion in “private sector development and thousands of new construction and permanent jobs.”
That rhetoric, while consistent with what Paulsen said earlier, stands in stark contrast to the Republicans’ Pledge to America, which calls for immediately halting a stimulus that is “not working.” Paulsen has not only backed the Pledge, he’s pictured in it on page 35.
“Again, it goes back to transportation being a core function of government,” Giga said, “and the language in the Pledge isn’t about that, it’s about all the extra stuff in the stimulus.”
The practice of opposing a bill but then aiming to benefit from it later isn’t unusual, congressional experts said.
“It’s a lot like the Republicans who argue against the idea of earmarks but will ask for earmarks until there’s a ban on all of them,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University.
As Rohde described the argument: It may be a bad law, but while it’s in place their districts shouldn’t be left out of the benefit.
“Although it can be a risky strategy if their actions are closely watched by strong challengers or reporters, members of Congress sometimes try to have it both ways by voting against a bill and seeking to benefit from its district-specific provisions after it is enacted,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
“Members talk about their vote against the stimulus bill to tout their ideological opposition to government spending even as they claim credit for the benefits that flow to the district.”
Pearson noted a similar situation when members of Congress showed up to ribbon-cuttings for projects funded by the stimulus.
President Obama blasted the dichotomy in an appearance at a stimulus-funded auto battery factory in Holland, Mich. Near him on stage was Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who had voted against the stimulus but attended the ribbon-cutting.
“Some made the political calculation that it’s better to obstruct than lend a hand,” Obama said. “They said no to the tax cuts, they said no to small business loans, they said no to clean energy projects. It doesn’t stop them from coming to ribbon cuttings.” (Hoekstra would later call those comments “unpresidential.”)
Ellison agreed with Obama.
“It’s emblematic, isn’t it? It’s emblematic of the hypocrisy that the Republicans are promoting every day,” said Ellison. “They’re at ribbon cuttings for stimulus projects, and they are going to try to condemn it as wasteful spending and take credit for it at the same time. I just pray the public sees through it.”
Rohde and Pearson agreed that, while the issue may be likely to be taken up by opponents, it’s unlikely to affect many people’s votes.
“I don’t think there are many constituents who will be bothered by the perception of inconsistency here,” Rohde said. Supporters will excuse it, opponents and maybe a few hardcore conservatives will be outraged.
“Then there are the people in the middle, but I think they’ll be persuaded by the argument that maybe it was bad policy but that their representatives had an obligation to make the best of it,” Rhode said.