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Republicans, Democrats who criticized stimulus wrote letters seeking funds
At least one of McConnell's requested projects was accepted, with $20 million being earmarked from the Transportation Department for a bridge replacement between Milton, Ky., and Madison, Ind.
All told, five members of the GOP's leadership - McConnell, Pence, Sessions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) - sent letters requesting that funds be funneled to more than a dozen projects. Even McCain, who made running against pork a key plank of his 2008 presidential campaign, sent a letter offering his "conditional support" for Energy Department funds for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The grant was not awarded. McCain also wrote three letters endorsing stimulus applications pending at the Commerce Department.
Such letters dismay tea party activists and conservative advocacy groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, which see a touch of hypocrisy among candidates they thought were conservative champions of spending cuts.
"The GOP should not be taking this money and spending it regardless of where it came from," said Rob Gaudet, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "They should be fighting against it with every fiber of their elected beings."
Over the past year, isolated reports of lawmakers and governors seeking funds from a single agency handing out stimulus money have surfaced in the news media. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Center for Public Integrity collected nearly 2,000 requests from lawmakers in both parties to secure funding from the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
When the bill was signed into law in February 2009, President Obama boasted that it was free of earmarks, which have been used by lawmakers for years to steer federal money to their pet projects.
"We're not having earmarks in the recovery package, period," the president said, promising that the process would create a "new higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight."
While the legislation went through Congress without any traditional earmarks, lawmakers - including some Democratic leaders - went to work afterward, cajoling agencies to secure stimulus money for their favored projects for constituents and donors.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote at least one letter requesting funds for three San Francisco broadband proposals. Another top House Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C), sent at least eight letters about a variety of projects. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is facing a tough reelection fight this year, wrote at least eight letters.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is running for Senate, initially voted against the stimulus plan but came around to cautiously supporting it. He collected $6,500 in donations from Duke Energy's political action committee in the months before and after he wrote a letter supporting the utility giant's request for an Energy Department grant it eventually won, the Center for Public Integrity found. Ellsworth's office declined to comment.
The practice of lettermarking has been controversial for years. The lawmakers cannot directly tell the agencies what to do, and sometimes the letters do not bring results.
White House officials told the Center for Public Integrity they had anticipated that lawmakers would resort to such a strategy. Obama issued a directive in March 2009 to agencies telling them they must weigh all grants on the merits regardless of political pressure.
The lettermarking after the stimulus law eliminated some of the transparency lawmakers had tried to achieve when they stripped the bill of earmarks, spending experts said.
"Lettermarking became a way for people to try to exploit [the process] and pursue the funding . . . under the radar," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that has long advocated against earmarks. "Even though we're for reducing earmarks . . . we don't want to simply squeeze the balloon and end up with phone-marking or lettermarking."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sees nothing wrong with his writing two letters on behalf of stimulus grantees, because he supported the law. But he said lawmakers could be more transparent by making their behind-the-scenes letters available to the public.
"Greater openness has been a hallmark of this Democratic Congress," he said, "and I am open to exploring additional measures that might make the funding process even more transparent."
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news center dedicated to producing investigative reporting across the country.