Romney’s work on Olympics, Massachusetts projects reveals complex history with earmarks

February 16, 2012

Mitt Romney is escalating his attacks on GOP presidential rival Rick Santorum as a Washington insider who sought more than $1 billion for wasteful projects during his time in the Senate.

But Romney has a complicated relationship with federal funding. As the head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, he led an aggressive effort to win hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for the struggling Winter Games. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney requested millions in federal earmarks for state transportation projects. He once boasted about his prowess at winning taxpayer money.

“I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t always ask for federal money whenever I got the chance,” Romney joked in 2006, after meeting with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both Massachusetts Democrats, to seek federal help for a safety review of Boston’s long-troubled $22 billion Big Dig tunnel project.

Romney’s stand on federal assistance is drawing new attention ahead of a Feb. 28 Republican primary in Michigan, where his opposition to a federal bailout of the automobile industry and his criticism of Santorum’s earmarks are a crux of his argument.

The difficulty for Romney now is in explaining his record. He considers appropriate his work asking for federal money, his aides said. But he has a problem with politicians such as Santorum, who actually doled it out.

“Every governor in the country makes requests for funding, but governors do not get to decide how Congress appropriates money,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney. She said that Romney supports a permanent ban on earmarks, adding that it is members of Congress, not state executives, who have the power to earmark appropriations.

At a minimum, Romney’s record shows a comfort with pressing for federal money for parochial projects. That could open a new vulnerability for a candidate trying to win over fiscal conservatives, particularly as Romney prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City this weekend.

It also could reinforce a narrative advanced by Romney’s opponents that he has shifted his positions to run for president, this time on the issue of federal earmarking, and could undermine what his campaign has pegged as one of a surging Santorum’s greatest weaknesses: his continued defense of the appropriations practice.

In Romney’s native state of Michigan, where polls show Santorum with a lead ahead of the critical primary, Romney has been stressing how deeply he cares about the American automobile industry, in which his father was once a top executive.

He says his opposition to the bailout of auto companies — outlined in a 2008 New York Times op-ed titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — was designed to strengthen the industry by forcing it to enter a managed bankruptcy that would replace executives and reduce unsustainable labor costs.

After the bailout, General Motors and Chrysler ultimately did enter such a process. Romney argues that the same outcome would have been possible without federal money, which he says has gone disproportionately to union workers over other employees and bondholders.

All of the Republican presidential candidates said they opposed the bailout. But if Romney wins the party’s nomination, Democrats will contrast his opposition to support for Detroit with his earlier pursuit of aid for the 2002 Olympics. They will argue that it shows misguided priorities and that it suggests that his opposition to the auto bailout was a political calculation to curry favor with fiscal conservatives.

“It’s a classic example of Romney hypocrisy,” said Jennifer Granholm (D), a former governor of Michigan. “If you would listen to him now, the federal government doesn’t have a role in spending money on anything other than the military. But when he was heading the Olympic Games and when he was governor, of course he sought federal assistance. Because there are things for which the country has a critical national need.”

According to Saul, taxpayers funded 18 percent of the Winter Games, a figure that was reduced by Romney’s success in winning corporate sponsorships for the event — and most of that funding went toward security.

But in “Turnaround,” Romney’s 2004 account of his successful effort to save the Olympics after they were hobbled by a bribery scandal and a budget shortfall, he makes clear that the push for federal aid began long before Sept. 11, 2001. He writes that when he took over the Games in 1999, he learned that organizers had assumed that the government would pay more — including for transportation and infrastructure — than had ever been spent on the Games in the United States. But they had done none of the required lobbying.

“I would be spending a lot of time in D.C.,” he writes.

He includes a sort of guide on how to win federal support in a section titled “Being Successful in Washington.”

His pointers include “Tell the truth — the whole truth,” which, in his case, included eliminating some federal requests lodged by Utah officials that were not truly needed for the Games. Another tip: “Never, never, never give up.”

According to Romney’s book, federal spending grew to $600 million from $200 million on his watch — including help with wages, new roads and building a section of light rail.

Former Utah senator Bob Bennett (R), who as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee helped secure federal funding for the Olympics, said most of the money was for security at a time when the safety of President George W. Bush, who visited, was paramount.

Of the non-security spending Salt Lake City received, Bennett said, most went toward transportation improvements that would have been funded in time anyway. And, he said, it was his own efforts — not Romney’s — that directed the money in conjunction with the Department of Transportation.

“The Olympics were an enormous psychological lift after 9/11,” Bennett said. “To carry that off as expertly as he did and have the whole world recognize America can do it — and do it right — it was significant.”

Other participants said they remember Romney’s involvement vividly. In February 2001, half a dozen congressional staff members flew to Utah to review proposals for federal money from the organizing committee.

Included on the agenda of the week-long visit was a dinner held by Romney and wife, Ann, at their Utah home. The aides returned to Washington buzzing about the scale of federal aid being requested — and about the impressiveness of Romney’s spectacular mountainside ski chalet, said Scott Lilly, then the Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.

“This was a pretty robust effort,” said Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

In recent days, Romney and his supporters have stepped up their efforts to highlight Santorum’s spending record in Congress, including his vote for a 2005 highway bill that included the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska.

Santorum is “somebody who voted repeatedly for higher spending, for more earmarks, for budget-busting entitlement programs,” Michigan State Rep. Aric Nesbitt said Wednesday in a call organized by Romney’s campaign.

In Monroe, Mich., on Thursday, Romney made the charge indirectly, saying that when the GOP seized power in Congress in the 1990s, they “started earmarking like crazy. Republicans spent too much money, way above the rate of inflation.”

When Romney was governor, his staff requested that Massachusetts’s Democratic members of Congress work to secure earmarks for the state’s transportation priorities. In 2005, the Romney administration asked for $50 million to improve a bridge connecting Somerset and Falls River. A year earlier, it asked for $25 million for a highway interchange.

Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), a longtime supporter of the bridge project, inserted a $3 million earmark for the project into the same highway bill that included the Bridge to Nowhere.

He said Romney asked for no more from the federal government than other governors. But, the congressman added, he asked for no less, either. “I’ve always been a person to defend the earmarks I’ve had,” Capuano said. “But I know there are people who disagree with me. And what I say is: If you’re going to be against earmarks, be against earmarks. Don’t seek them. Don’t ask for them.”

Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said that record makes it difficult for Romney to criticize Santorum on the issue.

“It's just confusing as to why Governor Romney would attack Rick Santorum for doing his constitutionally obligated job on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania, just as Governor Romney once did for the people of Massachusetts and as a private citizen while running the Olympics,” Gidley said.

But Saul, the Romney spokeswoman, said earmarks were “created by Congress, and abuses in the system by individuals like Senator Santorum are among the reasons why Washington has a spending problem.”

She said Romney supports banning earmarks, while Santorum“defends business as usual on Capitol Hill.” Romney has promised that as president he would limit federal spending and return nondiscretionary spending to below 2008 levels.

Staff writer Karen Tumulty in Monroe, Mich., contributed to this report.

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