WASHINGTON — Democrats dubbed them "highway hypocrites," the mostly Republican lawmakers who voted against last year's $862 billion economic stimulus bill but tried to get money from it for projects in their home states.
Idaho's three Republicans and sole Democrat all voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for example, yet they also championed projects that were paid for with stimulus money.
The bipartisan foursome joined to write letters that supported the work of several Idaho communities that were trying to land a piece of a highly competitive $1.5 billion transportation grant program created by the recovery act. None of the Idaho projects got any money.
However, the state did get $468 million for nuclear waste cleanup at the Idaho National Laboratory, an award that the entire delegation praised and that pushed the state, population 1.5 million, to the top tier of per-capita stimulus funding.
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"I'm not one who says there were no jobs created by it, or no jobs saved by it," said Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, whose district includes the nuclear lab. "I mean, obviously there were, whether it was in transportation or other areas."
However, Simpson said, "Once it's passed, my constituents are going to pay the taxes just like everybody else. And it would be silly for a state or a congressman to say, 'Well, we're going to pay the taxes to pay off that debt, but we're not going to take any of the benefits of it.' "
That kind of reasoning has prompted the White House and Democrats to say, "I told you so" to Republicans who've continued to charge that the massive spending plan was wasteful but have lobbied for stimulus money in their own states.
"There are those, let's face it, across the aisle who have tried to score political points by attacking what we did, even as many of them show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts," President Barack Obama said earlier this month, on the one-year anniversary of the stimulus package.
Several groups have been on the lookout for such behavior, including the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center in Washington that has close ties to the Obama administration. The center tracked stimulus spending and identified 114 lawmakers who voted against the Recovery Act but applauded projects in their own states, said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for the research center. In the House of Representatives, there were 94 such members; in the Senate, 20.
"For us, it comes back to the policy. If you vote against it, it means you think the policy is a bad idea," Jentleson said. "But if you take credit for it, and you're bragging about it to your constituents, it seems to indicate that you're for the policy."
So do Idaho's lawmakers think they're hypocrites?
Emphatically no, said Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who along with Simpson trumpeted the millions of dollars in funding for the Idaho National Laboratory, money that's created jobs and helped keep eastern Idaho's economy afloat in an otherwise bleak period for the state.
"I said at the outset that spending $800 billion in the short term would generate some economic activity that would not have otherwise been generated," Crapo said. "But that long term, the drag of that debt. If you take the amount of benefit that's being calculated out there and then offset against the amount of debt that's out there that each individual in America will pick up as well in the future, well, I'm not sure that the balance is justifiable. In fact, I'm quite confident that it is not."
Crapo and fellow Republican Sen. Jim Risch said that once it was clear that the legislation would pass without their support, they did what they could to ensure that Idaho benefited.
"When the money's on the table, virtually everyone's going to try to divert some of that money to their own state," Risch said. "That's not hypocritical at all. Once the Democrats said they were going to spend the money, I'm certainly not going to turn my back and walk away from it."
Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, said that he, too, was comfortable with his actions. It wasn't easy to vote against the stimulus, he said, because he was an economics major and understands the value of government spending during downturns. It also was one of the first big votes he faced as a newly elected Democrat, and it meant opposing his party's platform early in his House career.
He thought the stimulus was too big, however, and he wrote his own, more modest package that focused on infrastructure investment and tax rebates to middle-income people. It failed to gain traction, though, and Minnick voted against the Recovery Act when it came before the House.
"I don't think it's the least bit hypocritical to make the best of a bad situation and make sure some of those jobs come to Idaho," he said.
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