By Ledyard King of the Great Falls Tribune
WASHINGTON— Rep. Denny Rehberg minced few words last year criticizing President Barack Obama’s nearly $800 billion economic stimulus plan, saying it was “filled with wasteful spending that will do nothing to jumpstart the economy but will permanently bloat the federal government and make future tax increases inevitable."
Over the next few months, the Montana Republican wrote three letters to federal agencies, asking them to approve millions in stimulus aid for projects in his home state — a rural electric cooperative in Kallispell and Internet providers in Fairfield and Huntley.
A new report from the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington watchdog group that unearthed the letters, says Rehberg and other members of Congress are hypocrites for voting against the stimulus and later seeking money from the program.
“That’s like branding a calf you don’t own,” said Dennis McDonald, a Democrat challenging Rehberg in the Nov. 2 election.
Rehberg said there was nothing hypocritical in his actions.
“I promised from the start that I’d fight to make this lead balloon fly in Montana and I make no apologies for doing that,” he said.
He said his previous criticisms of the stimulus still hold true.
“We needed to stimulate the economy and create jobs, but this bill did neither,” he said. “Instead, it used the failing economy as an excuse to expand the reach of the federal government. Only a tiny fraction of the spending went to projects that would help the economy, and now we’re all on the hook to pay for the rest of this failed policy.”
The Center for Public Integrity posted three form letters with Rehberg’s signature asking the administration to consider the merits of the Montana projects. The letters were sent on behalf of: ã Flathead Electric Cooperative in Kalispell asking the Department of Energy to consider approving the cooperative’s application for money to drill exploratory geothermal wells.
Ken Sugden, general manager of the cooperative, said the agency never approved the $491,000. But Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, obtained the money through a congressional spending bill.
Sugden said the congressman, along with Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, was one of a number of people the utility approached to endorse the request for stimulus funds.
Baucus and Tester both voted for the stimulus program.
ã 3 Rivers Communications in Fairfield, which wanted to expand its Internet broadband capabilities.
Baucus and Tester also wrote letters in support. The company could not be reached for comment.
ã Viking Broadband Inc. of Huntley, which wanted about $4.9 million to expand its Internet service.
Rehberg and Baucus also wrote letters in support, but Dan Vaala, president of Viking, said the company never got any money. Viking serves several hundred customers east of Billings.
Like Rehberg, Vaala said he doesn’t like the stimulus program. But he said once Congress approved the legislation, it only made sense for Montana’s lawmakers to pursue the taxpayer funds. Otherwise, he said, the money would have gone to competitors in other states at Montana’s expense. “We had to assert ourselves that this is our territory,” Vaala said. “If any money’s going to be given out, we have to be there with our hand out just like everybody else is.”