On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham showed up in Minnesota to announce a $36 million grant for a new power plant, amid squeals of outrage from Democratic politicians that he was rounding up votes for President Bush in a battleground state. Earlier in the day, the secretary toured a clean coal project in Pennsylvania that will receive $100 million in federal funds.
Abraham's taxpayer-funded trips to Minnesota and Pennsylvania capped a period of intense travel that has focused on swing states. The previous week, he visited Florida to announce a $235 million grant for a power plant outside Orlando. The week before, he was in New Mexico with a $19.7 million federal handout for another clean coal facility.
Handing out federal money around election time has become so commonplace that it excites little reaction, even among advocacy groups established to combat pork-barrel politics. But some activists argue that the Bush administration has gone further than its recent predecessors in exploiting incumbency to woo voters.
"It's business as usual for politicians to dole out grants before an election, but we think the Bush administration might have set a new standard for pre-election pork," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. She described some recent decisions on the opening of environmentally friendly power plants as "politically motivated" rather than the result of careful consultations with the communities involved.
Abraham aides deny their grant-making activities have been influenced by electoral considerations.
"We announce these grants when they are awarded," Energy Department spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto said. She said decisions on where to locate clean coal plants were made by career officials in the department after exhaustive technical discussions, rather than by political appointees.
Abraham, who called for the abolition of the Department of Energy when he was a Republican senator from Michigan, is not alone in finding urgent reasons to travel to swing states during the campaign. Democratic lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to look at a spate of trips to battleground states by Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Republicans note that Clinton administration Cabinet-level officials traveled widely at taxpayer expense during the 1996 and 2000 campaigns, frequently combining their appearances in swing states with major funding announcements. During the 1996 campaign, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House ordered political appointees at agencies to conduct more than 1,000 "coffee chats" across the nation while the Treasury Department doled out $35 million in grants to community development groups, mostly in swing states.
Whether political patronage is rising or declining is hotly debated. Stephen Hess, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, a think tank here, notes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his campaign manager the postmaster general -- the Post Office Department was a major provider of jobs during the Depression. But the ability of modern-day presidents to distribute federal largess on a similar scale has been restricted by laws and regulations.
On the other hand, Hess and other analysts noted, the number of political appointees in government agencies has greatly increased. "There are many more assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries of agriculture. If you send them all out, you spread goodwill around in more places," Hess said.
One example is the Education Department. It has sent more than a dozen senior and mid-ranking political appointees to schools around the country over the past two months to "celebrate" the No Child Left Behind law, touted by Bush as one of his proudest domestic achievements. Many trips have been combined with the announcement of grants or other federal handouts, anywhere from $500,000 to $50 million.
Typically, the local media are alerted so television cameras can record the beaming Education Department official handing over an outsize check to grateful local officials. Many grant announcements have been made in swing states, where a few thousand votes can make the difference between a victory for Bush or his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry.
Earlier this month, for example, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Nina Shokraii Rees traveled to Broward County, Fla., scene of the controversial 2000 election recount, to announce grants totaling nearly $7.5 million for local magnet schools and teacher training. Other senior education officials have made repeated visits to Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other battleground states.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said that, while it is typical for grants to be made at the end of the fiscal year, there was nothing unusual about the trips.
"Education is an outside-the-Beltway issue," she said. "Our staff has been on the road, discussing No Child Left Behind and meeting with school officials and state officials ever since President George W. Bush signed this law" in January 2002.
Ironically, grant announcements have become so common in the battleground states that they often receive little media attention. Earlier this week, the Education Department sent notices to reporters trumpeting a new $2.3 million faith-based, after-school program in Columbus, Ohio, but no member of the media showed up for the announcement ceremony.
"There is a lot going on in Ohio these days," said William Dodson, executive director of the Dayspring Christian Community Development Corp., which will administer the project.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.