Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has taken pains in recent years to present himself not as the powerful earmarker who obtained hundreds of millions in federal funding for his state, but as a converted fiscal conservative fighting against “runaway Washington spending.” But rather than truly embrace the belt-tightening he preaches, the Senate Minority Leader has instead relied on an opaque process known as “lettermarking” to push for grants for Kentucky, including spending he publicly dismisses as wasteful.
Between 2008 and 2010, McConnell was solely responsible for more than $289 million in earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. While some decried these as wasteful spending and pork, the Republican leader defended the “good that has come from the projects” he funded through earmarks and refused to apologize for them — even as he endorsed a moratorium on the practice out of respect for the “wishes of the American people.”
Before the moratorium, the public could see which earmarks — Congressionally-directed spending for specific projects — each legislator sponsored and obtained. Voters could decide whether the $300,000 McConnell obtained for a Kentucky university to study animal health research and diagnostics was important or “old-fashioned pork.”
But now, McConnell and others rely on a far more secretive system to steer funds to their states: lettermarks. Legislators send letters to the executive branch officials whose budget they set in order to endorse grants, loans, and other funding for companies, non-profits, and individuals in their district or state. While these letters can be obtained by citizens and journalists under the Freedom of Information Act, the process can take months or years and the documents are often delivered with the names of the recipients redacted.
Because of the lack of transparency, McConnell has been able to push for Kentucky to receive the very funds he dismisses as “an excuse to waste tax dollars.” Among his efforts:
1. Pushed for Kentucky funding from the 2009 stimulus he called a “failure“: McConnell led the opposition to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and routinely dismisses it as “a big mistake.” But through lettermarks he requested and secured at least $20 million in stimulus funds for a bridge replacement — one of at least five such requests he filed. Despite McConnell’s calls for unspent stimulus funds to be cancelled, he happily took credit for stimulus money flowing into Kentucky, calling it a “a major victory for the commonwealth of Kentucky.”
2. Pushed for Kentucky funding for carbon dioxide emissions reduction, despite his only climate change denial: Mitch McConnell has dismissed climate science and authored a 2011 amendment to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But that same year, McConnell wrote the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy on behalf of a Kentucky constituent, endorsing its application for a Fossil Energy Research and Development grant. The funds, he assured them, would help “develop cost effective technologies for capturing carbon dioxide emissions at coal-fired plants.”
3. Pushed for energy innovation funding to develop the workforce despite claims that the government doesn’t create jobs: McConnell wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in September 2012 to urge a Critical Materials Energy Innovation Hub grant for two university consortia, which would develop “the workforce that is essential for rebuilding and jumpstarting the critical materials industry.” The same McConnell has publicly stated that government spending “doesn’t create jobs” or stimulate the economy.
McConnell’s lettermark requests attempt to spin the national debt as an argument for more spending in Kentucky, arguing, “As our nation continues on a path of unsustainable debt, it is more important than ever that we in Congress, and you in the Administration, work to ensure that every tax dollar is spent wisely.”
In April, a McConnell spokesman defended the lettermarking system, telling the Louisville Courier-Journal that the minority leader believes they are a good way to convey communities’ needs and that, “letters of support merely ensure that a Kentucky applicant is not lost at the bottom of the pile and receives appropriate consideration.” McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.