Hastert Directs Millions to Birthplace
Sunday, May 29, 2005
When Scott B. Palmer received an honorary degree in 2002 from his alma mater, Aurora University in Illinois, he urged the graduating class to "give back to our university, to our community and to our country."
As chief of staff to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Palmer runs a congressional office that has been able to do just that for Aurora, the birthplace of his boss and the largest city in his boss's home district.
Hastert has earmarked $24 million in grants for Aurora-based nonprofit groups since becoming speaker in 1999, using an obscure section of the big federal spending bills passed each year.
Nine months after the cap-and-gown ceremony honoring Palmer, Aurora University got $9.8 million to construct a teacher training institute. Aurora's Rush-Copley Medical Center, where Palmer is an unpaid trustee, captured a total of $5.5 million in 2002 and 2003. About $3.4 million has gone to another Aurora hospital where another member of Hastert's staff had worked.
Communities represented by powerful lawmakers have always had an edge in the scramble for federal funds. But Aurora's successful applicants have unusually close connections to members of its congressman's staff.
In addition, unlike a long line of big spenders before him -- including such masters of pork-barrel politics as the late speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) -- Hastert is a conservative Republican who favors smaller government and leaner domestic budgets. He has led the fight to enforce tough White House spending limits for the highway program and domestic spending bills, sometimes over the objections of GOP committee chairmen.
As the Bush administration applies the brakes to domestic spending, some are questioning the fairness of a system that enables powerful politicians to keep federal dollars flowing back home while districts represented by mere rank-and-file lawmakers are squeezed.
"The vast majority of [congressional] districts are getting below what they would get under any kind of a formula, and the big hogs are getting a disproportionate share," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic chief of staff on the House Appropriations Committee.
Ronald D. Bonjean Jr., Hastert's communications director, said that the section of the spending bill used by the speaker to provide most of the grants -- an account for "health care and other facilities" -- is an important part of the legislative process.
"It's a nonpartisan program that the speaker and members of the Illinois delegation in both parties work together on, helping cities and local communities provide their constituents with valuable education, health care training and services," Bonjean said.
Palmer declined to comment for this article.
Most federal funds for education, road building, health care and other services go to states and communities under formulas based on population, need or other criteria. Communities also compete for grants that are awarded on merit.