Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork

By Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 13, 2009

The compromise stimulus bill adopted by House and Senate negotiators this week is not free of spending that benefits specific communities, industries or groups, despite vows by President Obama that the legislation would be kept clear of pet projects, according to lawmakers, legislative aides and anti-tax groups.

The deal provides $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, for example, including money that could benefit a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The 311-mph train could make the trip from Sin City to Tomorrowland in less than two hours, according to backers.

A new alliance of battery companies won $2 billion in grants and loans in the stimulus package to jump-start the domestic lithium ion industry. Filipino veterans, most of whom do not live in the United States, will get $200 million in long-awaited compensation for service in World War II.

The nation's small shipyards also made out well, with $100 million in grant money -- a tenfold increase in funding from last year, when the federal Maritime Administration launched the program to benefit yards in places such as Ketchikan, Alaska, and Bayou La Batre, Ala.

None of the items in the sprawling $789 billion package are traditional earmarks -- funding for a project inserted by a lawmaker bypassing the normal budgeting process -- according to the White House and Democratic leaders. Republicans also killed or reduced a number of projects they considered objectionable, such as $200 million to re-sod the Mall in Washington and money for a new Coast Guard polar icebreaker.

But many Republicans, anti-tax advocates and other critics argue that the final version of the bill is still larded with wasteful spending and dubious initiatives that will do little to create jobs or spur financial markets. The legislation's sheer size and complexity set off a lobbying spectacle over the past few weeks, as diverse interests including pharmaceutical companies, cement firms and manufacturers of energy-saving light bulbs converged on Washington to elbow for their share.

"You have a moving vehicle, and people are trying to pile on and influence it in any way they can," said David Merritt, a health policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now a project director with Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation.

Stimulus advocates say the GOP complaints are overheated and generally focus on projects that Republicans dislike for ideological reasons. Chad Stone, chief economist at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, defended the bill. "The overwhelming bulk of what is in the package is effective and well-designed stimulus," he said.

Money for high-speed rail ballooned during the stimulus debate, from nothing in the House bill to $2 billion in the Senate version and finally $8 billion in the conference report, which was put together by Reid and other Democratic leaders.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement that the transportation secretary "will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds," but he acknowledged that "the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail project would be eligible." Summers said the rail funding "was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it."

One of the biggest targets of GOP complaints was a measure in the Senate version of the bill that did not name a recipient but would have provided $2 billion for "one or more near zero emissions power plant(s)." Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other Republicans say the provision was clearly directed at reviving the FutureGen Alliance project, a proposed "clean coal" plant in Illinois.

Coburn called the item the "largest earmark in American history," but in the end he was able to claim only a partial victory, as the conference bill still contains $1 billion that could be spent on FutureGen.

Another $800 million is set aside for other carbon-capture projects, and a clause allows the money to go to projects that use petroleum coke instead of coal. That would probably benefit a company called Hydrogen Energy, which is jointly owned by British Petroleum and the multinational mining company Rio Tinto and has plans to build a power plant in California.

A provision introduced by freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), a former textile industry employee, will require the Transportation Security Administration to purchase uniforms manufactured in the United States; most TSA clothing is currently assembled in Mexico and Honduras from U.S.-made fabric. The cost of the requirement is unclear -- the agency spends about $3 million on 12,000 new uniforms each year -- but labor and trade groups argue that it will create 21,000 U.S. jobs.

"We view this as a very inexpensive way to create jobs and also stabilize jobs in place," said Lloyd Wood of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.

Staff writers Kimberly Kindy and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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