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It’s early on a Monday in north Alabama’s “space city,” and Sen. Richard Shelby is bashing Washington at a packed town hall meeting in the cavernous U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
“We’re spending a lot of money that we don’t have,” the veteran Republican tells hundreds of business leaders, many nodding in agreement over bacon and eggs.
Lost in the moment is this irony: Shelby’s anti-spending message is being delivered in a government-built museum to which he frequently steers public money. The admiring crowd is made up of people whose livelihood depends on federal aerospace programs that drive the local economy. And the main point of Shelby’s speech is to assure them he’s fighting to stop NASA budget cuts and keep the spigot in Washington flowing.
The scene helps explain why Washington can’t control its spending. Lawmakers and their voters usually love the federal money that flows into their communities, even though they’re wary of spending in the abstract and balk at tax increases.
“I guess it’s human nature,” said Bubba Roby, a Huntsville banker who specializes in getting loans to local businesses, most of them doing work with the government. “Everybody wants to see their tax dollars come back home but they don’t want to see it going other places.”
Few politicians have played to this attitude better than Shelby and his neighboring-state colleague, Thad Cochran of Mississippi. As the top two Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the two Southerners have built their careers sending federal money back home. They stand out as big-spending dinosaurs compared with a new breed of conservatives who disdain Washington money on principle.
Plenty of Democrats bring home the bacon with similar vigor, but none has been simultaneously so critical of government spending.
Cochran, while calling Democratic budgets “dangerous,” has grabbed more than $2.5 billion in earmarks over the past three years, according to the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. That’s more than any other member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, and it’s almost as much as the $2.8 billion that Mississippi is receiving from President Barack Obama‘s much-criticized economic stimulus package. Shelby, who is coasting to re-election in November, isn’t far behind with about $1 billion over the past three years.
It’s not just their earmarks. The lawmakers routinely wield influence to secure federal aid for struggling local farmers or to stop local program cuts such as those proposed at NASA. Shelby temporarily blocked all of Obama’s nominations recently over disputes about new federal facilities in his state and a Pentagon contract that could create 1,000 jobs in Mobile.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said parochial spending is a major obstacle to controlling the deficit. To make significant cuts, she said, nearly everyone will have to sacrifice something. But few will be willing to do so when some states are getting extra goodies because of insider politics.
“Before you can convince someone that their taxes are going to go up or their Medicare payments are going to go down, you have to convince them that the government is budgeting wisely,” she said.
In Huntsville last month, the mood couldn’t have been more different from last summer’s hostile town hall meetings, where voters berated lawmakers over spending. Instead, hundreds of engineers and contractors were on hand to hear what Shelby is doing to keep NASA’s lunar space initiative off the chopping block after the Obama administration proposed privatizing it to save money.
Concern about the issue, and Shelby’s influence atop the spending committee overseeing NASA, was so high that his appearance created a nearly mile-long traffic jam outside the museum. Shelby — introduced as the city’s “champion” by the mayor — got a standing ovation before he said a word.
“I’m bullish on Huntsville,” he told the crowd, blasting the Obama administration over its NASA cuts. Then, without skipping a beat, he described a “ticking time bomb” of federal debt.
The conflicting messages barely registered. Like most interest groups seeking something from Washington, the Huntsville crowd argued that while Congress spends too much overall, the local projects are vital.
“There’s things like the bridges to nowhere, but we here in north Alabama definitely think defense and space exploration is important,” said Al Reisz, a propulsion engineer who has worked on federal aerospace programs for decades.
Shelby’s spending habit extends far beyond missiles and rockets; about a hundred miles south, the senator is almost single-handedly transforming his hometown of Tuscaloosa. Huge swaths of downtown are roped off behind orange construction barriers as the government builds a new federal building and remakes the city’s streetscape.
Just down the road, the University of Alabama is building a state-of-the-art, 900,000-square-foot engineering and science complex. Its domed brick centerpiece is one of many public facilities in the state named after Shelby and his wife, Annette.
Among Cochran’s pet projects this year were $6 million to expand the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park, a leafy, 272-acre campus where workers are busy erecting a new office building. He won $1.4 million to expand the runway at the tiny Golden Triangle Regional Airport in rural east Mississippi, which handles just a few commercial flights a day. Another $35 million went to the Delta Health Alliance.
When pressed, Shelby and Cochran declined to identify home-state programs they would cut. They argue that they’re simply fighting for their states’ fair share and exercising Congress’ duty to decide where money goes, not driving up overall spending levels.
Critics such as Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who has sworn off earmarks, say the country can no longer afford such parochial pressures. “You can’t ask for hundreds of millions of dollars every year and then expect people to take you seriously about fixing the system,” he said. “We have to focus on getting the federal government out of things, not into things.”