Most of the $2.2 billion in economic stimulus money for Army Corps of Engineers construction projects will be spent in the home districts of members of Congress who oversee the corps' funding, a USA TODAY analysis found.
Two-thirds of the money will be spent in states or districts represented by members of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that direct how the Corps of Engineers spends its money, the analysis found. The corps is spending its stimulus money on construction projects in 43 states for building or fixing water and sewer lines, dams, reservoirs, levees and harbors.
President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress say the $787 billion stimulus package didn't contain any money for projects requested by members of Congress. However, the stimulus law directs the corps to spend its extra funding on current projects — which were all selected by Congress in past spending bills.
The states getting the most money — California, Mississippi, Illinois, Texas and Florida — all have lawmakers serving on the appropriations committees. The seven states getting no corps stimulus funding include Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate but no members on the energy and water spending panels in either chamber.
"This is a good example of the problem of spending money where a member of Congress wants to spend it vs. where it's really needed," says Tom Schatz of the non-partisan budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The spending pattern reflects the priorities of appropriations committee members, not economic needs, he said.
Lawmakers with control over the corps' budget say they didn't tell the corps how to spend its stimulus money.
Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona, a senior Democrat on the House energy and water spending panel, said he did not contact the agency before the corps announced in April it would spent $36.4 million in stimulus funds on the Tres Rios flood control project in his district.
"When it was announced, it was a pleasant surprise," Pastor said.
Similarly, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said neither he nor his staff contacted the corps about stimulus spending. The corps plans to spend $212.8 million of stimulus money in Mississippi, more than any other state except California.
Corps of Engineers spokesman Gene Pawlik said corps officials selected construction projects for stimulus funding among those already approved by Congress.
"In the construction account, we looked at those contracts we could award quickly," Pawlik said, "and at the same time, we tried to have some geographic dispersion across the nation. … The spending was the agency's decision based on the criteria and guidance" in the stimulus law.
North Dakota, which has the nation's lowest unemployment rate, got $47.7 million in corps construction spending, or nearly $75 per resident. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that directs corps spending — a fact Dorgan prominently mentions in news releases touting the stimulus funding for his state.
"This is an investment in these rural communities that will create jobs now and lay the foundation for economic growth in the future," Dorgan said in a May announcement of $18.3 million for water and sewer lines in North Dakota.