Well-Timed Funding in Tight Races

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings appeared in Ohio with Republicans such as Rep. Ralph Regula. She also happened to bring a $20 million grant.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings appeared in Ohio with Republicans such as Rep. Ralph Regula. She also happened to bring a $20 million grant. (By Kiichiro Sato -- Associated Press)
By Ben Feller
Associated Press
Friday, October 27, 2006

Those in power love to dole out grants at election time. With Republican control of Congress at risk, the Bush administration is busily using the perks of incumbency to help allies from Ohio to California.

The formula: Cabinet luminaries travel to competitive districts and hand out money while local candidates bask in media coverage.

"Democrats did it. Republicans are doing it. The Whigs and the Federalists probably did it as well. It's a very old tradition," said John Fortier, a research fellow who studies politics at the American Enterprise Institute.

Take Pennsylvania, where Rep. Curt Weldon (R) was getting some fuel Wednesday from the Energy Department. The agency sent an assistant secretary to stand next to Weldon at a news conference, touting a local company that had just scored a $6.3 million federal grant. The photo op comes as Weldon is under federal investigation for conflicts of interest and is facing the most formidable reelection challenge in his 20-year career.

In the same state last week, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao joined another endangered Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum, and thanked him for his leadership. Then she announced a $10.4 million grant to help the state clean up from severe storms.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings chose to start handing out grants for teacher bonuses at the political crossroads of Ohio this week. In one of the state's most closely watched races, polls show Sen. Mike DeWine (R) trailing Rep. Sherrod Brown (D).

Spellings began her day Monday by appearing in Cincinnati with Rep. Steve Chabot (R), who is in his own election fight. To announce the $20 million grant for Ohio, she stood in Columbus with Rep. Ralph Regula (R), who oversees the House spending bill for education. The Education Department said the election had no bearing, but Brown called it a publicity stunt and "cynical politics at its worst."

Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, has traveled the South and the Midwest to help out GOP candidates. He appeared Tuesday at an ethanol seminar with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is tied with or trailing Democrat Mike Hatch in polls. The USDA chief then appeared at campaign events with Reps. Mark Kennedy, a Senate candidate, and Gil Gutknecht, whose races are viewed as competitive.

All this political promotion comes in addition to President Bush's increasingly frequent forays on behalf of struggling Republicans.

In Buffalo, even the chairman of the House GOP election effort is struggling to hold on to his seat. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds is trying to overcome criticism that he did not do enough to stop inappropriate relationships between congressional pages and former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

On Tuesday in Buffalo, leaders of a private club and writers at the city's newspaper got unusual visits from the third-ranking official at the CIA. The stops by Michael J. Morell, the associate deputy director of the agency, were arranged by Anthony Gioia, a longtime Bush fundraiser and a donor to Reynolds. Morell spoke about the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism. CIA officials rarely make such appearances.

Asked about the timing, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, "Politics had no bearing whatsoever on Mr. Morell's acceptance of an invitation to give a speech in Buffalo or when to give it." He added, "No one dispatched him." Mansfield said previous directors and senior officials have talked to newspapers' editorial boards.

The travel by the Cabinet has irked Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Government Reform Committee. He produced an analysis Wednesday that says the cost of private travel by Cabinet secretaries and agency heads is more than $1.5 million since 2001.

"Cabinet secretaries are currently crisscrossing the nation to make appearances with members of Congress in close races," Waxman wrote to White House budget chief Rob Portman. "It would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars if, as in 2004, these officials were traveling on chartered private jets." He asked Portman to intervene.

Fortier, the American Enterprise Institute scholar, said he doubts any grant announcement or campaign stop by a big name will make a huge difference in an individual race. But it can't hurt. "For incumbents, this is something they can use to combat the argument that you need change," he said. "They're saying: 'Remember that aside from all the national issues, I'm here for you. I have the ear of the president.' "

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