After opposing the stimulus, members of Congress try to get some of its dollars for constituents
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2010 - When the $787 billion federal stimulus bill won approval in Congress in February of last year, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, said that the "whopping price" was too much, and he talked of an "ethical question" about participating in a process he considers wasteful of taxpayer money.
But as federal officials began to decide where the money should go, Akin swallowed his opposition. He wrote a letter to Laurence E. Strickling, an assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, urging that some of the funds should go to a business in his 2nd District, as part of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).
In the formalized language that typifies many such congressional requests for consideration of their constituents, Akin wrote to Strickling on Sept. 14, 2009:
"It has come to my attention that Wi2Wi is seeking funding to develop Micro-Infrastructure Technology comprised of Micro-Access Units and Micro-Control-Units. I believe this technology application, if supported by the BTOP, could bring a benefit to underserved, smaller communities throughout Missouri."
Later in the letter, Akin writes, "I respectfully request that you give Wi2Wi's application for the BTOP due consideration."
The turnaround -- from opposing passage of the stimulus to seeking a share of its spoils -- is hardly unique. The Center for Public Integrity found hundreds of similar requests nationwide, many from members of Congress who like Akin voted against the bill and criticized it after it won passage.
What prompted his change of heart? Akin spokesman Steve Taylor said it was a matter of making sure that money already approved by Congress is spent in the best way possible.
"He thinks it is his responsibility to look at projects based on individual merit," Taylor said of Akin. "He is a conservative, and he is very careful about what he endorses. That is why he would not support the carte blanche spending of nearly a trillion dollars without looking at what is in it.
"He has always taken a close look at specific proposals, and when they have had enough merit, he has supported them. He has been very circumspect when it comes to fiscal responsibility, very circumspect about growing government, but when certain projects have been important enough, he has supported them.
"He had to make a determination whether or not, given the fact that the money had been authorized without his approval, projects were worth spending the money that had already been authorized."
Akin is hardly alone, either in seeking money or in his turnaround from an earlier position.
Retiring Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., for example, was quite vocal against the stimulus package during the congressional debate and afterward.
"Hold on to your wallets, folks," he said during the discussions on the package, "because with the passage of this trillion-dollar baby the Democrats will be poised to spend as much as $3 trillion in your tax dollars,"
The month after the package won approval, Bond said:
"Just weeks after passing their trillion-dollar 'spend-ulus' bill, House Democrats are already talking about a second stimulus. ... I know that Missourians and many Americans agree that a trillion dollars is truly a terrible thing to waste."
But when officials were awarding contracts for the money, Bond wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on behalf of a grant application from Doe Run Resources Corp., saying:
"As a country, we have been investing in development of electrical cars for some years, one of the reasons being to wean our dependence on foreign oil and provide environmentally friendly alternatives. However, I have become increasingly concerned that any alternative technologies not have the same weakness in terms of dependence. The Doe Run Company New Technology Lead Processing Facility project addresses that issue by providing a sustainable domestic supply of lead for our nation. I urge you to weigh that point in your deliberations about the package of projects the Department of Energy supports."
In a statement from his office, Bond explains the change of heart this way:
"While I voted against this nearly trillion dollar bill that failed to produce the jobs promised, the only thing that could make it worse would be if none of it returned to the taxpayers of Missouri. After all, this was a national bill -- taxpayers in every state are on the hook for paying for it so Missouri deserves a chance at the dollars as well."
Opponents of the program are hardly the only members of Congress to seek contracts for their districts. In a series of form letters where only the names of the company and the nature of the projects were changed, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wrote:
"I am writing in support of (name of company here) 's application for a grant through the (name of program here) .....
"I hope you will extend every consideration to their proposal. Please keep me informed on the progress of this request."
And Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, wrote on behalf of two grant applications on online access from the Leslie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis:
"I strongly support these applications for assistance under these programs and encourage your serious consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need additional information or if I can be of assistance in any other way."