Time to Dis-Obey

The son of House Appropriations Committee’s Chairman wants something in the “stimulus” bill for his special interest, and Democratic rank and file may be in no mood to dis-Obey.

Wisconsin Congressman David Obey, the third-most senior Democrat in the House, is the primary sponsor of H.R. 1, President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the House of Representatives version of  the “stimulus” bill

The bill includes over $2 billion for the National Park Service, including “$1,700,000,000, for projects to address critical deferred maintenance needs within the National Park System” and $250 million in the Federal Highway Administration section of the bill for “park roads and parkways.”  The Senate’s version of the stimulus bill has “only” about $800 million for national park projects.  Why the large difference?

Some in Congress point with suspicion at the fact that Mr. Obey’s son, Craig, is the head lobbyist for the National Parks Conservation Association (“NPCA”), a “membership organization dedicated to protecting the park system.”

Tom Martin, Executive Vice President of the NPCA, is adamant that “Nobody in (the NCPA’s) office has lobbied the Chairman (Congressman Obey) about the stimulus and Craig most certainly does not talk to the Chairman about any of our issues. That would just be stupid.”

And while I take Mr. Martin at his word, the question remains as to whether the very presence of Craig Obey so deeply involved in the issue would cause Democratic House members to go overboard trying to direct money towards his cause. After all, there are few more powerful people in all of United States government than the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee.  With a Congress that lives (with rare exception) by buying votes with earmarks, nobody wants to get on David Obey’s bad side.

It’s not as if Craig Obey has been inactive on the issue.  According to Mr. Martin, “Craig has had many of the ‘friends’ groups and volunteers contact members of Congress to talk about the unprecedented opportunity we have.”  It would seem quite an “opportunity” indeed, with the $2.065 billion for NPS in the House Bill representing about an 85% increase in the NPS’s total budget over FY 2008.  The plan seems to fit well with Rahm Emanuel’s admonition to Democrats that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa has called for an investigation into whether the large allocation for the National Park Service (“NPS”) in the House bill was essentially an undisclosed earmark.  Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Congressman Issa, said that “Democrats’ promise for transparency has not been met with action by the Democrat majority, and Congressman Issa is calling for an investigation to ensure that everything is above board.”  

Bardella noted that Craig Obey is listed as the primary contact on an NCPA presentation about what they’d like to see in a National Parks Budget, “raising significant questions about the fact that the stimulus bill proposes doubling that budget.”

Proponents of the spending argue that the House proposal is simply “catching up on the NPS capital budget” which has a $9 billion backlog of “deferred maintenance” projects. And maybe we should consider ourselves lucky to have a mere $2 billion in the House bill and $800 million in the Senate bill.  During the confirmation hearings for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), laid out over $18 billion of “backlog” in National Parks projects and asked Salazar if he would “work with us to see that some of these legitimate needs of the parks and forests and public lands are better addressed in the administration’s economic recovery plan?”  Salazar’s predictably answered “Yes, indeed” and added that he was already in contact with “those crafting the package” hoping “to address” over $2.5 billion of National Parks projects in the package.

But as Congressman Issa’s spokesman noted, “At a time when Congress is allocating more than a trillion taxpayer dollars, we need to know that the money is going to reinvigorating the economy.”  

NCPA’s Tom Martin suggests that “Our park system is a place we go to really express our American values. They’re kind of a validation of our people, who we are, what we believe, like Gettysburg, the Trail of Tears, Ellis Island.  They remind us of who we are as a people and the challenges we’ve faced.”  I appreciate the sentiment, but I can’t take the next step with Martin that it means a nation in recession should suddenly be pouring unprecedented amounts of money into parks because they make us feel better.

While Mr. Martin does believe the money would create real “stimulus”, at least to the extent that any other make-work infrastructure spending would, there’s a very different opinion from Senate pork-buster-in-chief, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Senator Coburn is no enemy of the National Parks.  In our brief phone conversation, he decried the fact that “we continue to not take care of our national parks, letting them fall apart.  We just added 4 new parks but we can’t take care of the parks we have now. Like the USS Arizona…it’s sinking.  Gettysburg has a $30 million backlog, and the Grand Canyon has a $300 million backlog.”

According to Coburn, these may be worthy projects, but they’re not stimulus: “If you could get the money there and get it competitively bid, then it might be stimulatory. But it would have to be done within the first two years.”  What I asked if it were impossible that the money could be put to work within two years, Senator Coburn responded with a question of his own: “Have you seen how they do things over there?”  

When I said I figured it was pretty much like the rest of the federal government, he said, “Sort of, but they move much slower.”

So it isn’t sentimentality or an odd sort of patriotism that is behind the $2.065 billion directed to the National Park Service in the House’s stimulus bill.  Instead, the issue allows Democratic congressmen the “opportunity” to satisfy the wildest spending dreams of the son of one of the party’s most powerful men.  While it may not be overt corruption the effect is the same: Does anyone believe that Chairman Obey won’t look particularly favorably on earmark requests from those members of Congress (particularly Washington State’s Norm Dicks in this case, who is taking the credit for the National Parks provision of the House bill) who make the proposal benefiting the younger Obey?

In Senator Coburn’s view, the whole Obey-Obey connection “comes close to being inappropriate and doesn’t pass the smell test.”

It’s all too reminiscent of David Obey’s comment about a spending bill late last year: “We’ve done this the old fashioned way by brokering agreements in order to get things done and I make no apology for it.” With billions of dollars sloshing around in DC, most Democrats will think it no time to dis-Obey.