'Stimulating Hypocrisy' report finds lawmakers voted no but still seek funding

WASHINGTON -- Back in 2008, President-elect Barack Obama boasted his $787 billion economic stimulus bill would not contain hometown earmarks for members of Congress.

But after the bill was signed into law early in 2009, dozens of lawmakers behind the scenes wrote letters pressuring government bureaucrats on how to spend the money, including some members of Congress who had criticized the stimulus and voted against it, according to a report this week by the Center for Public Integrity.

"Scores of Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against the ... American Recovery and Reinvestment Act subsequently wrote letters requesting funds for projects in a massive, behind-the-scenes letter-writing and phone call campaign," the investigative journalism center said, citing documents in a project it called "Stimulating Hypocrisy."

Among Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill and then requested funding was Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, according to documents posted to the Internet by the center.

In voting against the bill in February 2009, Ensign said it would end up costing more than $1 trillion, included reckless spending and would do little to help homeowners and small business.

But Ensign subsequently wrote letters to officials at the Departments of Energy, Commerce and Transportation endorsing grant applications from Nevada government entities and private firms.

Ensign spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper defended the letters by the senator.

"The stimulus bill passed, and Senator Ensign voted against it because it wasn't the right way to repair our economy," Cooper said. "That said, there is a pot of money that has been allocated to states to fund programs, and Senator Ensign fights to get Nevada its fair share."

The practice of lawmakers trying to influence bureaucrats after a bill has been passed and signed into law has become known as "lettermarking."

"Using both federal agency sources and the Freedom of Information Act, the center collected a stack of letters a foot high detailing nearly 2,000 requests from lawmakers in both parties to secure funding from a law designed to stimulate the sagging economy," the center said.

Besides Ensign, the Center for Public Integrity located letters to federal agencies penned by Sen. Harry Reid and Reps. Dina Titus and Shelley Berkley. All are Democrats who voted for the stimulus bill.

Reid sent a half dozen letters in support of Internet broadband grant applications from Nevada counties, the Las Vegas-Clark County Urban League and the town of Pahrump and for a telemedicine initiative sought by the Nevada Hospital Association.

Reid, a defender of congressional earmarks, had no hesitation to push for the grants, spokeswoman Meredith MacKenzie said.

"Organizations from across Nevada worked very hard to present strong applications for Recovery Act funding," MacKenzie said. "In his position as majority leader and Nevada's senior senator, Senator Reid advocated for these projects in letters of support and now many of those same projects are expanding their work and creating jobs to get Nevadans back to work."

Republican Rep. Dean Heller, the other member of Nevada's congressional delegation, has not written any letters in support of stimulus funds, said Stewart Bybee, his press secretary.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.