With Reporting By Jason Cherkis
WASHINGTON -- Few candidates in the Republican presidential primary field have decried the federal government with as much gusto as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). The three-term congresswoman has belittled the stimulus package, deemed the Obama administration both corrupt and "gangster," and lamented the "orgy" of spending she sees happening in Washington.
The contempt has served her well, helping her craft the type of fiscally conservative, anti-government message that has catapulted her into frontrunner status for the Iowa Caucus and, more immediately, Saturday's crucial Ames Straw Poll.
But it's simply not supported by the Minnesota Republican's actual record.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Huffington Post with three separate federal agencies reveals that on at least 16 separate occasions, Bachmann petitioned the federal government for direct financial help or aid. A large chunk of those requests were for funds set aside through President Obama's stimulus program, which Bachmann once labeled "fantasy economics." Bachmann made two more of those requests to the Environmental Protection Agency, an institution that she has suggested she would eliminate if she were in the White House.
Taken as a whole, the letters underscore what Bachmann's critics describe as a glaring distance between her campaign oratory and her actual conduct as a lawmaker. Combined with previous revelations that Bachmann personally relied on a federally subsidized home loan while her husband's business benefited from Medicaid payments, it appears that one of the Tea Party's most cherished members has demonstrated that the government does, in fact, play a constructive role -- at least in her life and district.
"It had been a longstanding tradition in Congress to be fiscally conservative in every other district other than your own," said John Feehery, president of QGA Communications and a top adviser to former Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert. "Bachmann apparently is being a traditionalist."
A traditionalist, perhaps, but only when the cameras are off. When President Obama crafted a $787 billion stimulus package that included historic investments in state aid, infrastructure projects, health care and education reforms as well as a large swath of tax breaks, Bachmann led a chorus of conservatives in decrying the policy.
“During the last 100 days we have seen an orgy [of spending]," she said of the stimulus and auto industry bailout during a conference in Minnesota on May 4, 2009. "It would make any local smorgasbord embarrassed."
Less than three weeks later, she went looking for her piece of the pie.
On May 20, 2009, Bachmann wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking him to look into an application for aid that the city of Big Lake, Minn., had made to "develop and finance the Big Lake Rail Park," which she described as "an ambitious commercial and industrial complex which will enhance economic development and job opportunities in this rural Minnesota community." Toward the end of the letter, she added: "We must work together to ensure job creators have access to the vital credit they need to make projects like this a success."
On May 22, 2009, she wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for support for the St. Cloud, Minn., Metropolitan Transit Commission's application for federal funds to "replace twenty-three 35-foot transit buses with compressed natural gas (CNG) powered buses."
On June 4, 2009, she wrote LaHood again seeking grant funding to extend the Northstar Corridor commuter service from Big Lake to St. Cloud.
On June 19, 2009, she made an "urgent" request to LaHood to reverse a decision by the Federal Highway Administration that undermined a project in Waite Park, Minn. The project, she noted, had already received $2.578 million in federal funding through the stimulus package and was "only awaiting the final determination" from the FHWA.
On July 2, 2009, she wrote LaHood again, pleading for money for road improvements in Waite Park. She added that she was "pleased to learn" that Minnesota's Department of Transportation was not going to "pull the nearly $2.8 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding set aside for the project."
On Sept. 15, 2009, Bachmann wrote six separate letters to LaHood asking for help funding six projects (the Northstar line among them) through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. The Center for Public Integrity and MinnPost has previously reported on those letters.
On Oct. 5, 2009, she wrote Vilsack again, praising him for putting money into the nation's beleaguered pork industry and encouraging him to help "stabilize prices through direct government purchasing."
Five days later, she was chastising the concept of government spending in public, saying that the president's efforts to stem the fallout of the recession amounted to a charade. "We hear about fantasy football games. This is fantasy economics," Bachmann said.
That the Department of Transportation was the primary target of Bachmann's quest for federal funds isn't surprising. The congresswoman has a record of trying to protect infrastructure projects from her party's budget cutters, arguing that transportation projects should be exempt from the ban on earmarks that the House of Representatives instituted in November 2010. She was also far from the only conservative who attempted to get her hands on some of the $12 billion in funds that DOT received under the stimulus.
"Some members refuse to take stimulus and won't have anything to do with getting government transit money flowing into their states. Others will say that they are against the idea of the stimulus or federal money flowing into the economy but if the money is there, they are going to try and get that money flowing into their district," said Brian Darling, a senior fellow in government studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
But that doesn't necessarily absolve Bachmann from attacks from her fellow party members, Darling continued.
"Some conservatives won't like it," he said. "No two ways about it. They will look at it and not like it because they don't want members trying to funnel money back to their state."
Even more problematic, however, could be Bachmann's attempts to get money and assistance from the EPA, an agency that she once said should be "renamed the job-killing organization of America."
In February 2007, well before Obama was in office, Bachmann co-signed a letter to the EPA urging its officials to help fund technical assistance programs and rural water initiatives "in small communities across Minnesota." The authors of the letter, which included nearly the entire Minnesota congressional delegation at the time, noted that FY 2006 funding for the National Rural Water Association had been set at $11 million.
"We need to continue these efforts in 2007," they wrote.
In other communications with the EPA, Bachmann was far colder to agency policy, criticizing spring 2009 federal management standards for coal combustion byproducts and 2008 National Ambient Air Quality standards. But in other instances, Bachmann turned to the EPA for constituent-related problems. In a Feb. 2, 2010, letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, she asked the agency to support a $270,806 grant application (filed with the EPA's Clean Diesel Grant Program) that would help a St. Cloud bus company replace two older motor coach vehicles.
"Voigt's Bus Service, with Community Transportation, Incorporated, is committed to bringing long-term benefits to the environment and the economy and they wish to accomplish this through the Clean Diesel Grant Program," she wrote.
More than the specific funding requests, it is Bachmann's private acknowledgement that the EPA can facilitate positive outcomes for both the environment and the economy that stands out for conservative activists. On her campaign website, after all, Bachmann refers to the EPA as the "Job Killing Agency."
"There is a line between representing your district and then trying to lard up on all of this pork spending, pun intended," said Bill Wilson, President of Americans for Limited Government. "There are very few in Congress who have been able to stand strong and say, 'No I'm not going to do this.' And they are, in our view, the heroes … By not being part of that group [Rep. Bachmann] isn't unique, obviously. But I think that she would owe an explanation to the public as to why she did it. Why she asked for certain things, including things from EPA when she's been very vocal about the overreach of the EPA?"
Both Bachmann's presidential campaign and her congressional office did not return requests for comment for this article. In the past, the congresswoman has tried to draw a distinction between the national message she imparts and her professional responsibilities as a representative from Minnesota.
"It is my obligation as a member of Congress to ensure stimulus dollars are spent on the most worthy projects. I did just that when I supported applications for the TIGER grant program," she said last year.
While Bachmann clearly petitioned the federal government for help in multiple venues, she was incredibly unsuccessful in her efforts. Minnesota's sixth congressional district received more than $234 million in stimulus contracts, grants and loans, according to the Obama administration's Recovery.gov website. That may seem like a hefty bundle, but it ranks last among the state's eight congressional districts.
A Department of Transportation official, meanwhile, tells The Huffington Post that the federal government did not end up funding a single one of the projects for which Bachmann solicited help. The department did send funds to the Minnesota state government, which in turn backed transportation initiatives in the state. But the DOT official said that only a small sliver of that pool, if any, was likely to have ended up where Bachmann wanted.
In one instance, moreover, Bachmann wrote LaHood in support of the "Cold Spring Police Department's application for funding through the COPS hiring Recovery Program." That program, the DOT official confirmed, is operated by the Department of Justice. Bachmann was petitioning the wrong agency.
In the end, Bachmann's ineffectiveness in securing federal help for constituents doesn't mitigate the fact that she sought federal help in the first place. And for Republican primary voters, who have been fed a healthy diet of anti-government rhetoric during this election cycle, that may prove to be a blot on her record.
"This will come up in the context of the battle for the Republican nomination and it will be up to Mrs. Bachmann to explain these things adequately," said Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican operative. "The task for any good candidate is to explain why they did such and such which might not conform with party orthodoxy, and then pivot very quickly to convince enough primary voters why it is they who should be the nominee and not the other contenders."