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Like it or loathe it, local congressional delegation keeps eye on stimulus package

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - WASHINGTON - Sen. Claire McCaskill, a government reformer from the moment she arrived in Washington, saw the massive cost of the economic stimulus plan of 2009 and immediately knew what she had to do - focus on bringing accountability and transparency.

For Rep. Jerry Costello, chairman of the House aviation panel, the measure is a chance to make critically needed improvements in the safety and efficiency of the nation's aviation system.

Rep. Todd Akin finds himself compelled to warn Americans about a huge transfer of money and power to Washington, one he says will burden future generations without providing the promised help to the economy.

The $787 billion economic stimulus package is like a Rorschach test to the local congressional delegation - members see in it what they want and act accordingly. Some like it and are diving in to help shape it, some loathe it and are keeping their distance, and others are somewhere in between and seek to improve it.

The plan, signed into law last week by President Barack Obama, is intended to create or protect 3.5 million American jobs, while boosting consumption partly through tax cuts, in an effort to move the economy out of its deep recession.

The most active support from the St. Louis-area delegation tends to come from liberal legislators, while conservatives are highly suspicious. Moderates, for the most part, offer lukewarm support for what they deem a necessary but flawed effort.

"I'm very proud that we have delivered the most significant jobs bill in American history," says Rep. William "Lacy" Clay, D-Mo. At least 69,000 of those jobs will be in Missouri, he says, adding that "the bill also invests almost $1 billion in infrastructure projects across our state," to rebuild roads and bridges, transform healthcare information technology, repair obsolete schools, advance renewable energy and improve public transit.

Clay has been active in shaping the plan, partly through his post as chairman of the House panel on information policy and the census. He played a role in the measure's $19 billion healthcare information technology component, which aims to create a secure digital records system.

Clay contends this will save billions of dollars while helping avert 25,000 medical errors annually that lead to patient deaths because of inadequate medical records. He also helped insert about $2 billion in extra funding for the census to minimize traditional undercounting in poor urban and rural areas.

But to Akin, R-Mo., the plan's "whopping price" is simply too much - and he says the spending is misdirected to boot. Akin, who is the top Republican on the House sea power panel, says that in just five weeks, with this bill alone, the administration is undertaking more spending than the entire cost of six years of war in Iraq and seven years in Afghanistan.

Akin rejects the idea that government spending can turn around a recession. But even if it could, he says, the way to accomplish that would be through huge infrastructure and hydroelectric projects. Instead, he sees this bill as "a massive move toward the political left, with increased welfare, government rationing of health care, nothing on defense."

Because Democratic leaders gave legislators just a few hours to examine the bill, Akin says, with the vote followed by last week's congressional break, it remains unclear how the process will unfold and what if any practical role he'll have as the money is allocated and spent locally. There's also an "ethical question" about participating in a process he considers wasteful of taxpayer money.

In any case, he says, the Democrats in Missouri's delegation, and the state's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, are likely to have more impact as the process moves forward. If so, that would create an ironic situation, because a minority of Missouri's delegation - the four Democratic representatives and one senator - would have more influence than the five Republican representatives and one senator.

Missouri's Democratic legislators supported the stimulus measure while the GOP members opposed it.

McCaskill, D-Mo., has consistently used her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to press defense officials on their stewardship of taxpayer money, and she is taking the same position with the stimulus program, which she supports but calls "not perfect," both in spending choices and in accountability.

Through amendments, she helped assure that a federal website to allow the public to track the progress and impact of projects would be up and running by the time the bill was signed into law. She said the site  would include detailed information about sub-contractors as well as contractors so the money could be followed down to the local level.

McCaskill also successfully pushed for more funding for federal inspectors general to monitor the process and for whistleblower protection for contractors and state and local employees. But she was disappointed that her tough amendment on CEO pay was stripped from the final bill.

Missouri will get $148 million for clean water and sewer projects, but it would have been hard-pressed to use that money because of wording in the state constitution requiring local ballot initiatives for loans. McCaskill worked with Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond to alter the stimulus so states can give out the money as grants instead of loans. That averted a problem in Missouri, because the bill's time constraints don't allow ballot initiatives.

Bond, R-Mo., a senior Senate appropriator, inserted $2 billion in direct equity grants to states, aimed to increase housing construction. That stands to save more than 700 housing units in Missouri and create 3,000 related jobs.

He also added increased funding for community health centers and to help fill shortages in the health care workforce, as well as for construction of National Guard facilities.

"This is the type of emergency stimulus spending we should be supporting - programs that will create jobs now and help families," Bond says. But, as a whole, he finds the bill flawed, asserting that it neither addresses the housing and credit crises nor offers enough infrastructure projects or tax relief.

"Taxpayers will be on the hook for spending that will stimulate the debt, stimulate the growth of government, but will do little to stimulate jobs or the economy," Bond contends. The "paltry" tax relief in the measure gives workers "only an extra $8 per week in their paychecks," he says, while the $3 billion in tax relief for small businesses is even more insufficient.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., helped secure the votes to pass the bill as a senior deputy whip for House Democrats.

Passing it was critical, says Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who says the measure "represents a good balance of tax cuts and spending stimulus to help get our economy back on track and help get people in this country working again."

Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cites the inclusion of rural and highway programs helpful to residents of his district and, more broadly, stimulus measures that address "an economic downturn that has become a national security threat to the United States."

Costello, D-Ill., pushed for $1.1 billion for the airport improvement program, to help projects that build capacity, such as runways. He said he would have preferred two separate bills, one focusing on infrastructure and the other on areas like health care and unemployment benefits to provide a "soft landing" for as many people as possible in the economic downturn.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., opposed the stimulus measure as too expensive, though he agrees that some type of federal action is needed. As a member of the congressional Steel Caucus, Shimkus co-signed a letter calling on the government to provide help for the American steel industry though domestic-content provisions. Several other Illinois legislators also signed the letter, including Costello, and the stimulus package contains language similar to what they called for.

He calls the stimulus package "bloated" -- saying it contains too much unnecessary spending and too few infrastructure projects and tax cuts. "I have been hearing from my constituents," he says, "and they overwhelmingly said to reject this massive spending bill."

With delegation members having done what they could do to pass - or oppose - the bill and to shape it in various ways, their attention now turns to implementation. Here, members are active in three ways - seeking accountability, meeting with constituents and pushing for effectiveness.

Costello and Clay believe, as does McCaskill, that transparency and accountability will be a key to the plan's success. Clay says that one reason many perceive the previous administration's bailout plan to not have worked well is that the public lacked confidence in how money was used. He plans to check that timely information is posted on the website, and also to meet with state and local officials to ensure the money is spent in ways that promote job creation.

Because the stimulus money is allocated by formulas or competitive grants through existing programs, legislators can't try to steer money toward favorite projects in their districts. But they can work to make sure the programs use the money effectively for maximum impact and that community officials are aware of grants to apply for.

To that end, Carnahan has been speaking with a variety of people from his district -- business owners concerned about maintaining health care benefits for their employees, autoworkers worried about their industry, people who've lost their jobs, others who've seen the values of their investments fall and local officials who've seen revenue fall.

He's seeking to get ideas on making the programs effective and also to allay public concerns about the measure. It's important that the stimulus not be a top-down process, and that local businesses find ways to augment the programs, Carnahan says.

Given the recent change of governor in Illinois, Costello has been coordinating with the governor's office to make sure Illinois is in position to use the stimulus money as quickly as possible.

In Jefferson City, state officials are eager to get going. As soon as Obama signed the stimulus bill, the Missouri Department of Transportation proudly announced that the state would get "the first-in-nation economic recovery project" - 43 years after it became the birthplace of the nation's interstate system by getting the first contract under the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, says that "literally within seconds of the president signing that bill," construction began on the $8.5 million replacement of the Osage River Bridge in Miller County. In all, $637 million for roads and bridges will go to 34 major projects that are already in the pipeline or about to be, Rahn says. Half the money has to be spent within 120 days and the rest within a year.

That money, and an additional $150 million for air, rail, transit, waterway and pedestrian projects, is expected to create 14,000 jobs in Missouri and have a $2.4 billion impact on the state's economy.

Among other areas, Missouri will get $150 million for clean water infrastructure, $114 million for affordable housing and homeless prevention, $924 million for local school districts and public universities, $84 million for job training and job-finding services, $132 million for weatherization assistance, $461 million for food stamps and $134 million for extended unemployment insurance.

Nixon says that by "openly and responsibly investing" those and other federal recovery funds, Missouri will be able to "jumpstart" its economy.

The economic stimulus plan is expected to create or save 148,000 jobs in Illinois, according to White House and congressional officials. The plan includes $260 million for clean water infrastructure in Illinois, $936 million in highway funding and $468 million in mass transit, $388 million for affordable housing,  $2.1 billion for local school districts and public universities, $189 million for job training and helping in finding work, $249 million for weatherization, $936 million for food stamps, $72 million to prevent homelessness through rental assistance or relocation, $98 million for law enforcement and up to $303 million in extended unemployment insurance.

Philip Dine, a Washington-based labor and national security reporter, is author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence."