Florida’s congressional delegation used a behind-the-scenes process known as ‘lettermarking’ to bring home federal stimulus money
By Thomas Francis
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
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On the same morning in February 2009 that President Barack Obama promoted the federal economic stimulus plan in Fort Myers, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican from Lee County, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to criticize that same legislation.
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The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting examined Florida lettermarking in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, which produced a national report on the issue.
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In a letter to Obama that was read on the cable news channel, Mack described the bill as being full of “earmarks, pork-driven projects and liberal-spending programs.”
Other Florida Republicans, who warned that the stimulus plan was part of a tax-and-spend culture in Washington, D.C., that would bankrupt the nation, shared Mack’s view. They cited that belief in casting votes against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in January 2009.
But seven months later, Mack wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking for $29 million in stimulus funds to improve railroad infrastructure in his district.
Through a spokesperson, Mack defended his apparent double standard on stimulus spending.
“Congressman Mack will always fight for his district’s growing infrastructure needs,” said Stephanie DuBois, Mack’s press secretary. “Unfortunately, the stimulus plan fell well short of stimulating anything other than big government.”
Mack’s attempt to steer stimulus money to his district has become known on Capitol Hill as “lettermarking” — a process similar to earmarking but regarded by government watchdogs as an even less transparent tool for winning federal funds for pet projects.
Based on a review of records by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in Washington D.C., and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Republicans from throughout the Sunshine State pushed to steer millions of stimulus dollars to their districts despite having joined Mack’s public outcry against federal spending. In interviews with FCIR, these Republicans said it’s their duty to win constituents’ share of federal spending, even if they disagree with that federal spending.
“The hypocrisy is really just astonishing,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who is a vice chair of the Democratic Party’s incumbent retention program for next month’s midterm election. “So many of these Republican members of Congress are one person in Washington and another person when they go to their district, and their constituents should know this.”
While Obama and the Democratic Party promised transparency in the $787 billion stimulus bill, Democrats in Congress also participated in lettermarking. Bureaucrats in Washington have final say on where federal stimulus money is spent, and it’s unclear how many lettermarked projects were funded or will be funded in Florida. Nonetheless, Republicans and Democrats alike used lettermarking as a way to influence the outflow of stimulus money.
U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, was among Florida’s lettermarking lawmakers. In January 2009, Crenshaw said his vote against the stimulus was “a vote against debt and big government.” Yet, in October of that year, he authored letters asking the administration to use stimulus dollars to fund two major transportation projects in his district.
In an e-mailed statement, Crenshaw asserted that he “consistently voted against bloated spending packages.” But he added: “Jacksonville should have every possible opportunity to access available federal dollars, just like every other metropolitan region in the nation, even if I opposed the stimulus funding measure.”
In late January 2009, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, told a Tampa Bay area cable news channel that the stimulus bill was “a lot of pork,” but in September of that year, he asked for a piece — $16 million in highway funds to widen Tampa’s Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in his district.
Bilirakis did not respond to requests for comment.
Three Miami Republicans — U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — criticized the scope of the stimulus package, but they banded together in September 2009 by signing a letter that requested $106 million in stimulus funds for a project to improve Miami’s NW 25th Street Viaduct.
Joining those three Republicans were Democrats Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate. Since Democrats promised transparency in the stimulus bill, lettermarking could be viewed as a violation of that promise.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen and Meek did not respond to requests for comment.
For his part, Mario Diaz-Balart insists he’s consistent in his position on the stimulus. “Since Florida taxpayers have already been raided by this administration, you better believe that I’m going to fight to get those (stimulus) projects to come to Florida,” he said.
In a January 2009 statement, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, expressed disgust for what he called a “pork-laden pie,” only to request part of that pie in August 2009 for a biorefinery project at his alma mater, the University of Florida.
Putnam, who is running for commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, e-mailed a statement to reconcile his opposition to the stimulus with his advocacy for the biorefinery project: “Even if you lose a vote on the floor of the House and a measure you oppose becomes law, a congressman has a responsibility to remain engaged in the process. If you believe a law is bad, then it is your responsibility to work to make it less bad.”
U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican, did not cast a vote on the stimulus bill because he didn’t join Congress until Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him in fall 2009 to replace retiring Sen. Mel Martinez. But LeMieux soon established himself as one of the GOP’s most forceful critics of big government.
On Oct. 21, 2009, LeMieux devoted his first speech as senator to what he called “our nation’s spending problem,” which he described as “out of control” and “unsustainable.”
LeMieux did not mention that on the day before his speech, he had written a letter to the Transportation Department in which he asked for more than $65 million for a bus and train center in Jacksonville.
During the same period, LeMieux, who said he would have voted against the federal stimulus package, was fighting for billions in federal funding for the construction of a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.
On Nov. 6, 2009, in another speech before the Senate, LeMieux again scolded Congress for its spendthrift ways. “Both sides of the aisle talk about fiscal restraint and fiscal discipline,” he said. “Yet we keep spending more than we have.”
But 11 days later, LeMieux sent a letter to Transportation Department officials asking that they award stimulus funds to Charlotte County’s Gateway Harbor Walk.
Challenged to reconcile LeMieux’s opposition to federal spending with his aggressive pursuit of federal funds, the senator’s spokesperson, Jessica Garcia, said: “The difference is between fighting to prevent the spending in the first place and advocating for your state’s fair share once the money is sent out of Washington. There is no question government needs to rein in spending, but if Florida’s families are upset about the stimulus, think how they would feel if all the money was spent elsewhere.”
After Obama signed the stimulus bill into law on Feb. 17, 2009, the power to select recipients of stimulus funds shifted to federal agencies, which is why these agencies were deluged with lettermarking requests from members of Congress. Even politicians who criticized lettermarking participated in the process.
Wasserman Schultz, the Broward County Democrat, has objected publicly to lettermarking for its lack of transparency. “It allows (lawmakers) to bring home federal funds based on a decision made by some bureaucrat who isn’t accountable to voters in the same way as a member of Congress,” she said.
But at the same time, Wasserman Schultz used lettermarking to advocate for seven projects, including a $58.3 million overpass near Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and several broadband Internet infrastructure improvements in South Florida.
In an e-mailed statement, Wasserman Schultz’s press secretary, Jonathan Beeton, pointed out that Republicans “stated that they are against any types of earmarks but then turned around and tried to secure funds without disclosure, and that is disingenuous.” The Democratic Congress, Beeton said, has enhanced disclosure of earmarks by requiring that appropriation requests be published on legislators’ websites.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said lettermarking was inevitable for congressional members of both parties.
“Like nature, Congress abhors a vacuum,” he said. “After the legislation passed, lawmakers quickly stepped in to try to dictate how those funds were spent,” no matter how vehemently those same lawmakers opposed the federal spending in the first place.
“It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to legislation,” Ellis added.
U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, offers a clear example of the approach Ellis described.
Letters to the Energy Department
Letters to the Commerce Department
Letters to the Transportation Department
Stearns voted against the stimulus bill, telling a gathering of fiscal conservatives that “too many members (of Congress) do not realize the serious threat of excessive federal spending and borrowing.”
But in September 2009, eight months after the stimulus vote, the Ocala Republican wrote a letter to Transportation Department officials requesting $79 million in stimulus money for a project to improve infrastructure of a port in Jacksonville. In November of that year, Stearns composed a letter asking the same officials to fund a project at Jacksonville International Airport, in addition to another letter on behalf of Gainesville officials seeking recovery funds for road projects.
Stearns’ congressional office did not respond to requests for comment.
“I think it’s disingenuous to argue against the stimulus on one hand and then to ask for those funds in the next breath,” said Doug Guetzloe, the chief strategist for the Florida Tea Party, which has registered as a political party. “I think this is a problem that Congress has and that it’s the reason its approval ratings are so low — there is so much duplicity.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fort Walton Beach, eviscerated the stimulus proposal in January 2009. “The leadership of Congress is out of touch and intoxicated by their power, and it intends to bankrupt the country by funding programs no one needs,” he said in a statement after the legislation passed the House.
Months later, Miller struck a more solicitous tone in letters to Transportation Department officials. He asked that they use millions in stimulus dollars to fund 10 separate projects in his Panhandle district, including hundreds of miles of improvements to roads and the replacement of more than 100 bridges.
In yet another example, U.S. Reps. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, John Mica, R-Winter Park, and Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, voted against the stimulus. But all three wrote letters to the Transportation Department seeking stimulus funds for favored projects.
Advocacy groups such as the Alexandria, Va.-based National Taxpayers Union have heard this political song before. Pete Sepp, a spokesperson for the union, said lettermarking is just a new spin on the earmarking debate.
“It’s a more polite form of pork-barreling,” said Sepp, who believes the same kinds of public disclosures that occurred in recent years with earmarks should be applied to lettermarking.
“Lawmakers are entitled to write the letters, but the taxpaying public is entitled to see them much more widely than they do.”