Stimulus spending spawns requests

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President Obama and congressional Democrats have defended the $787 billion stimulus package against accusations of pork-barrel spending by saying the bill did not direct money to projects requested by members of Congress.

Still, that hasn't stopped lawmakers from working behind the scenes to try to influence how the money is spent, according to agency records.

Dozens of members of Congress from both parties have called, written or e-mailed agencies urging them to fund projects in their districts or states.

Among the projects supported by members of Congress that have been funded: $116 million for a federal courthouse in Austin; $35 million to $60 million for toxic waste cleanups in Massachusetts and Colorado; and $5 million for the removal of pine trees killed by bark beetles in Colorado, records show.

Ten of 27 departments and agencies receiving stimulus money have released records of contacts by lawmakers under Freedom of Information Act requests USA TODAY filed in April. Those records detailed 53 letters, phone calls and e-mails recommending projects from 60 members from February through the end of May. Thirteen of those lawmakers voted against the stimulus package.

Budget watchdogs worry that political pressure from members of Congress could threaten the impartiality of agency decisions.

"This is really subverting the intent of the legislation, when members call an agency and say, 'Fund my project,' " says Thomas Schatz of the non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste. "Especially if it's an appropriations committee member that's in charge of the agency's budget, it's likely the agency will accede to that request."

Lawmakers say they are just doing their jobs.

"One of the dumbest things I've ever heard is the notion that members of Congress should have no say on how government money is spent," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who successfully petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to use stimulus money to speed cleanup of a polluted harbor.

Congress enacted rules two years ago requiring lawmakers to disclose their requests for funding of projects inserted into annual spending bills and to certify that the projects would not directly benefit themselves or close relatives. The stimulus bill, however, contained no specific projects — known as earmarks — prompting lawmakers to seek other ways to direct spending.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., says behind-the-scenes contacts with agencies allow members to dodge their promises of openness and accountability for government spending. By leaving earmarks out of the stimulus package, Congress created "an empty canvas for pigs to paint," DeMint said. "If the members didn't think they had the power to direct this money, this wouldn't have passed," he said.