Rep. Pete Sessions, the firebrand conservative from Texas, has relentlessly assailed the Democratic stimulus efforts as a package of wasteful “trillion-dollar spending sprees” 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 seeking stimulus money behind the scenes for the Dallas suburb of Carrollton after the GOP campaign against the 2009 stimulus law quieted down.
Sessions wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in February urging him to give “full and fair consideration” to the affluent city’s request for $81 million for a rail project, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. His letter suggested the project would create jobs, undercutting his public arguments against the stimulus.
When asked about his letter, Sessions defended both of the positions he has taken.
“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,” he said.
Sessions was hardly alone. Scores of Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against the stimulus law subsequently wrote letters seeking funds. They include tea party favorites such as freshman Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), as well as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former presidential candidates.
Like their Republican counterparts, Democratic critics of the stimulus also sent letters seeking funding afterward. Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of just seven Democrats in the House to vote against the bill, has written a series of letters to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke requesting funds for four different broadband-related projects in his state.
Minnick declined to be interviewed. His communications director, Dean A. Ferguson, said Minnick “voted against the bill but said from that day forward that his obligation is to help his constituents.”
Ferguson said he sees no problem with the system of “lettermarking,” as it is known by lobbyists, because agencies have the final say on where the funds go.
“In some cases, projects Walt supported did not receive funds,” Ferguson said. “They were competitively awarded and thus not earmarks.”
The behind-the-scenes grab for stimulus dollars is a particularly sensitive topic for Republicans, who have wooed the tea party movement with an incessant attack on stimulus spending as wasteful and ineffective. The House GOP’s Pledge to America campaign manifesto promises to rescind all unspent stimulus dollars if Republicans regain control of Congress in the November elections.
But several of the architects of the GOP’s anti-stimulus campaign tried to secure money from the program, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a member of the Republican House leadership who helped craft the Pledge to America.
At least one of McConnell’s requested projects was accepted, with $20 million being earmarked from the Transportation Department for a bridge replacement between Milton, Ky., and Madison, Ind.
All told, five members of the GOP’s leadership – McConnell, Pence, Sessions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) — sent letters requesting that funds be funneled to more than a dozen projects. Even McCain, who made running against pork a key plank of his 2008 presidential campaign, sent a letter offering his “conditional support” for Energy Department funds for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The grant was not awarded. McCain also wrote three letters endorsing stimulus applications pending at the Commerce Department.
Such letters dismay conservative advocacy groups like the Tea Party and Americans for Tax Reform who now see a touch of hypocrisy among candidates they thought were conservative champions of 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.”
Over the past year, isolated reports of lawmakers and governors seeking funds from a single agency handing out stimulus money have surfaced in the news media. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Center for Public Integrity collected nearly 2,000 requests from lawmakers in both parties to secure funding from the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
When the bill was signed into law in February 2009, President Obama boasted that it was free of so-called earmarks, which have been used by lawmakers for years to steer federal money to their pet projects.
“We’re not having earmarks in the recovery package, period,” the president said, promising the process would create a “new higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight.”
While the legislation went through Congress without any traditional earmarks, lawmakers — including some Democratic leaders — went to work afterward, cajoling agencies to secure stimulus money for their favored projects for constituents and donors.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote at least one letter requesting funds for three San Francisco broadband proposals. Another top House Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C), sent at least eight letters about a variety of projects. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is facing a tough reelection fight this year, wrote at least eight letters.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is running for U.S. Senate, initially voted against the stimulus plan but then came around to cautiously supporting it. He collected $6,500 in donations from Duke Energy’s political action committee in the months before and after he wrote a letter supporting the utility giant’s request for an Energy Department grant it eventually won, the Center for Public Integrity found. Ellsworth’s office declined to comment.
The practice of lettermarking has been controversial for years. The lawmakers cannot directly tell the agencies what to do, and sometimes the letters do not bring results.
White House officials told the Center for Public Integrity they had anticipated that lawmakers would resort to such a strategy. Obama issued a directive in March 2009 to agencies telling them they must weigh all grants on the merits regardless of political pressure.
The lettermarking after the stimulus law eliminated some of the transparency lawmakers had tried to achieve when they stripped the bill of earmarks, spending experts said.
“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 advocated against earmarks. “Even though we’re for reducing earmarks . . . we don’t want to simply squeeze the balloon and end up with phone-marking or lettermarking.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sees nothing wrong with his writing two letters on behalf of stimulus grantees, because he supported the law. But he said lawmakers could be more transparent by making their behind-the-scenes letters available to the public.
“Greater openness has been a hallmark of this Democratic Congress,” he said, “and I am open to exploring additional measures that might make the funding process even more transparent.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news center dedicated to producing investigative reporting across the country.