House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican leadership’s tether to the Tea Party, flutters the hearts of the government-bashing, budget-slicing faithful with his relentless attacks on runaway federal spending. To Cantor, an $8 billion high-speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Disneyland is wasteful “pork-barrel spending.” The Virginia Republican set up the “You Cut” Web site to demonstrate how easy it is to slash government programs. And he made the Department of Housing and Urban Development the poster child for waste when he disclosed that the agency was paying for housing for Ph.D.s.
But away from the cameras, Cantor sometimes pulls right up to the spending trough, including the very stimulus law he panned in public. Letters obtained by Newsweek show him pressing the Transportation Department to spend nearly $3 billion in stimulus money on a high-speed-rail project—not the one he derided in Nevada, but another in his home state. “Virginia ... will demonstrate that this historic investment in rail will create jobs, reduce congestion, spur economic growth and improve our environment,” says a letter he signed with other Virginia members in October 2009, cribbing President Obama’s own argument for the stimulus.
Cantor signed several such letters, including an earlier one seeking rail funds a month after he went on national television attacking the Vegas project. He also signed a letter in October 2009 seeking $60 million to build commercial ships, some likely along Virginia’s coastline. As for his bashing of HUD, until last year he owned as much as $50,000 in preferred stock in a real-estate company that receives federal housing assistance from the department.
As the government showdown over debt continues—the so-called congressional supercommittee negotiating cuts has been floundering for weeks—Newsweek found about five dozen of the most fiscally conservative Republicans, from Tea Party freshmen like Allen West to anti-spending presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Ron Paul, trying to gobble up the very largesse they publicly disown, in the time-honored, budget-busting tradition of bringing home the bacon for local constituents.
The stack of spending-request letters between these GOP members and federal agencies stands more than a foot tall, and disheartens some of the activists who sent Republicans to Washington in the last election.
“It’s pretty disturbing,” says Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, when told about the stack of letters from members, many of whom he supported in 2010. “We sent many of these people there, and really, I wish some of our folks would get up and say, you know what, we have to cut the budget, and the budget is never going to get cut if all 535 members of Congress have their hands out all the time.”
Many of the letters seek to tap the stimulus, clean-energy loans, and innovation grants—programs the same Republicans have accused Obama and the Democrats of using to bloat government and jeopardize America’s future. And these fiscal conservatives often used in their private letters the same arguments they pan in public.
Seizing on the Obama administration’s decision to make a risky half-billion-dollar loan to a struggling solar firm named Solyndra, Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa have recently accused Democrats of trying to pick winners and losers and questioned the need for the Energy Department loan-guarantee program at the center of the controversy.
But both Boehner and Issa struck a different tone in requests for help from that program in their home states: Boehner for a uranium project in Ohio, and Issa for an electric-car company in California. “Awarding this opportunity to Aptera Motors will greatly assist a leading developer of electric vehicles in my district,” Issa wrote in January 2010, just 18 months before he began investigating the Solyndra controversy. An Issa spokesman has said the grant was never funded, and that Aptera was on better financial footing than the now-defunct Solyndra. Boehner’s office says the nuclear project had gone through a rigorous vetting process for funding, unlike Solyndra.
Fred Upton, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, who is currently investigating Solyndra and other parts of the stimulus, himself appealed to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other Energy officials in 2009 for similar grants. In a series of 10 letters, Upton and colleagues highlighted projects in Michigan that, if granted more than $250 million, could create more than 5,000 jobs.
One lawmaker’s pork-barrel spending, of course, has always been another’s opportunity to show his constituents he cares. But in an election cycle certain to revolve around the economy and unemployment, the divergence between rhetoric and reality is unusually stark. And to average Americans, the fiscal hawks’ public bashing of spending they seek privately feels a lot like watching a fitness guru gobble down a milkshake and a Big Mac.
Cantor’s office says the majority leader had an epiphany about the Virginia rail project and now believes the country can’t afford it. Spokesman Brad Dayspring also offers a more technical explanation: “The Vegas rail line was essentially an $8 billion earmark,” he says. “The Richmond rail had bipartisan support and was a far different animal.” Many members also argue that once money is appropriated, it’s their job to secure some for their constituents.
Other letters show similar requests from Republican presidential candidates who have campaigned on reducing federal spending. Gov. Rick Perry once floated the idea that Texas could secede from the U.S. to avoid Washington’s heavy hand, and he has derided Obama’s stimulus. But two years ago, Perry embraced $2 billion from the stimulus law for highway and airport projects, writing a perfunctory July 2009 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood identifying how he would use the money. Perry was slow to spend the job-creating money as promised, prompting LaHood to send a polite note that November urging the governor to “redouble your efforts to move projects through the process as quickly as the law and financial oversight will allow.”
Fellow Texan Ron Paul, also a government basher on the campaign trail, has participated, too. Between December 2009 and last fall, Paul wrote three letters to top Transportation Department officials seeking more than $150 million to finish a high-speed-rail project in Texas. “This potential lack of sufficient funding will severely limit future projects and the full implementation of true high speed rail,” he and 10 colleagues pleaded to Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration. Paul told Newsweek that the money was already on the table—if federal money has already been allocated in a spending bill approved by Congress, he sees it as his job is to secure some for his district: “Adding earmarks to a bill does not increase federal spending by even one penny.”
Likewise, presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican who formed the Tea Party caucus in Congress, asked the Transportation Department in April for $750,000 in federal money to boost passenger traffic at a small airport in St. Cloud, Minn. (population: 65,000). She closed her letter saying that the grant would be “sound spending of taxpayer dollars.”
Republican David Vitter has been one of many members who have consistently opposed stimulative measures Obama has tried to sell, including the Recovery Act. “It’s not real job creation ... We need to act on the economy, but that doesn’t mean typical Washington pork-barrel spending,” he said in February 2009 at a rally against the stimulus on the Capitol’s steps.
Yet two months after railing against bloated spending, the Louisiana senator appealed to Chu to fund an activated-carbon power plant in Red River Parish, La. “The project is expected to provide a significant economic impact in an area of Louisiana that is in desperate need of quality manufacturing jobs,” Vitter wrote. He forecast that the project would create 70 to 80 full-time manufacturing jobs once it was completed. A spokesman for Vitter says the senator opposed the Recovery Act but is open to other spending programs that benefit Louisianans.
Personal benefits also come in the form of farm subsidies. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a junior Republican from Indiana who came to Washington in 2010 to limit government, lamented this year that “the president believes that ‘investing’ is spending more taxpayer dollars. It is time to invest in the nation’s future by controlling spending.”
But in 2010, the same year he entered Congress, Stutzman collected $4,061 in farm payments from the Department of Agriculture. Since 1997, his family has received $183,431 to grow corn, soybeans, and wheat. “I don’t deny it at all,” Stutzman told Newsweek, noting that he’s working to abolish the direct-payment system. “But I can’t compete as a producer without [the subsidies].”
Even Tea Party icon Allen West of Florida has gotten into “lettermarking,” a Washington term to describe efforts to seek money for pet projects. Though he’s just 10 months in office, the House freshman has already written at least four letters seeking federal largesse for his district, including one asking to fund a pedestrian pathway in Riviera Beach, Fla. Twice in the letter West vows the project “will create better access to jobs and services.”
West offered a different take the next day during a speech to a local Chamber of Commerce chapter that protesters came to picket: “The people outside don’t understand,” he told the business leaders. “Government does not create jobs.” When asked about the discrepancy, Angela Sachitano, a spokesman for West, said the congressman has been “consistent” in his support of some spending—so long as it’s done fairly, and benefits his district.
A version of this article appeared in the print issue dated Nov. 7-14, 2011, with the headline: Hypocrites