WASHINGTON — Those in power love to dole out grants at election time. With Republican control of Congress at risk, the Bush administration is busily using the perks of incumbency to help allies from Ohio to California.
The formula: Cabinet luminaries travel to competitive districts and hand out money while local candidates bask in media coverage.
"Democrats did it. Republicans are doing it. The Whigs and the Federalists probably did it as well. It's a very old tradition," said John Fortier, a research fellow who studies politics and elections at the American Enterprise Institute.
Grants and grins
Take Pennsylvania, where Republican Rep. Curt Weldon was getting some fuel Wednesday from the Energy Department. The agency sent an assistant secretary to stand next to Weldon at a press conference, touting a local company that just scored a $6.3 million federal grant.
The photo op comes as Weldon is under federal investigation for conflicts of interest and is facing the most formidable re-election challenge in his 20-year career.
In the same state last week, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao joined another endangered Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum, and thanked him for his leadership. Then she announced a $10.4 million grant to help the state clean up from severe storms. Analysts have rated Santorum, the No. 3 Senate GOP leader, as among the most likely Senate Republicans to lose on Nov. 7.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings chose the political crossroads of Ohio when she was ready to start handing out grants for teacher bonuses this week. Among other crucial races there, polls show Republican Sen. Mike DeWine trailing Democrat Sherrod Brown.
Spellings began her day Monday by appearing in Cincinnati with Rep. Steve Chabot, who is in his own election fight. To announce the $20 million grant for Ohio, she stood in Columbus with Rep. Ralph Regula, who oversees the House spending bill for education.
The agency said the election had no bearing. Brown didn't buy it. He said President Bush and DeWine have shortchanged schools for years, and he accused them of cooking up a publicity stunt. "Cynical politics at its worst," he said.
Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, has traveled the south and the Midwest to help out Republican candidates.
Johanns appeared Tuesday at an ethanol seminar with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is tied with or trailing Democrat Mike Hatch in polls. Then he appeared at campaign events with Senate candidate Mark Kennedy and Rep. Gil Gutknecht, whose races are viewed as competitive.
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All this political promotion comes in addition to Bush's increasingly frequent forays on behalf of struggling Republicans.
Democrats are expected to pick up seats on Election Day; just how many will determine the direction of Congress, and perhaps the rest of the Bush administration. They must gain 15 seats in the House to take control there, and six in the Senate.
In Buffalo, N.Y., even the chairman of the House GOP election effort is struggling to hold onto his seat. Rep. Tom Reynolds is trying to overcome criticism that he did not act early enough to unearth the congressional page scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley.
On Tuesday in Buffalo, leaders of a private club and writers at the city's newspaper got unusual visits from the third-ranking official at the Central Intelligence Agency. The stops by Michael J. Morell, the associate deputy director of the agency, were arranged by Anthony Gioia, a longtime fundraiser for President Bush and a donor to Reynolds. Morell spoke about the war in Iraq and the fight against terror. CIA officials rarely make such appearances.
Asked about the timing, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said there is no connection to the election. He said previous directors and senior officials have talked to editorial boards. "Politics had no bearing whatsoever on Mr. Morell's acceptance of an invitation to give a speech in Buffalo or when to give it," Mansfield said. "No one dispatched him."
Misuse of taxpayers' dollars?
Meanwhile, travel by the Cabinet has irked Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the Government Reform Committee. He produced an analysis Wednesday that says the cost of private travel by Cabinet secretaries and agency heads is more than $1.5 million since 2001.
He wrote White House budget chief Rob Portman and asked him to intervene.
"Cabinet secretaries are currently crisscrossing the nation to make appearances with members of Congress in close races," Waxman wrote. "It would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars if, as in 2004, these officials were traveling on chartered private jets."
Fortier, the research fellow, said he doubts any grant announcement or campaign stop by a big name will make a huge difference in an individual race. But it can't hurt, either.
"For incumbents this is something they can use to combat the argument that you need change," he said. "They're saying, 'Remember that aside from all the national issues, I'm here for you. I have the ear of the president.'"
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