BOISE - Idaho Sen. Jim Risch blasted the federal economic stimulus bill Wednesday for being filled with big earmarks for Democratic leaders, but his prime example turned out to be in error.
“Remember, the president promised us change, and indeed we did get change,” Risch told the Idaho State Senate. “The earmarks used to be a million or two or three million dollars - in this particular bill, Nancy Pelosi’s earmark for the red-breasted harvest mouse, which you’ve probably never even seen because it only exists in her district, to save that is $50 million.”
The problem: There’s no such earmark in the bill, and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse - which isn’t red-breasted - isn’t found in Pelosi’s district.
Drew Hammill, spokesman for Pelosi, called the story about the mice “a total fabrication.”
It apparently originated a week ago in talking points distributed by Republicans in Congress, charging that $30 million would go to the mouse. That was actually the figure the California State Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, had put together to show the total of its “shovel-ready” restoration projects eligible for stimulus funding in the San Francisco Bay Area, none of which are in Pelosi’s district.
Brad Hoaglun, Risch’s director of communications and senior adviser, said, “That’s good to know - I’ll make sure the senator doesn’t say it any more. … This was something that last week everyone was saying was in the bill. It was part of talking points that circulated on Capitol Hill.”
The coastal conservancy hopes to apply for stimulus funds granted to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for the projects, which include flood control and access work along with habitat restoration for fish, birds, and more.
Dick Wayman, the conservancy’s communications director, called the mouse story “absurd.” He said, “We have this huge project and … people were picking out this one minor aspect of it, a cute little mouse - it sounded like we were idiots.”
Hoaglun said the issue shows the complexity of the 1,100-page stimulus bill, something Risch demonstrated to Idaho lawmakers when he dropped a full copy of the bill - a foot-high stack of paper, held together with several rubber bands - on the lectern in the state Senate.
“You should take into close consideration the stimulus package and what effect it’s going to have in the budget, but don’t do it until you’ve read the stimulus bill, not only read the stimulus bill but studied the stimulus bill and know it paragraph by paragraph and page by page,” Risch declared, slapping his hand on the tall stack of papers.
Asked by a reporter if he’s read the stimulus bill, Risch said, “I did read parts of it, but only parts. It’s 1,100 pages long. … And reading a bill is not like reading a novel. It’s difficult reading.”
He told the state Senate, “If you go through this you cannot tell the answer to three questions about the money, and that is how much, when, and what strings are going to come with it. There is very little in this bill that talks about that. So my point is, I think you’re going to have a very difficult time trying to plan a budget if you’re going to be counting on any of the money from this so-called stimulus package.”
Risch, like all members of Idaho’s congressional delegation, voted against the bill.
He also decried the inclusion of what he called an $8 billion earmark in the bill for a project favored by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, a “magnetic, levitating, high-speed train from Disneyland to the Las Vegas strip.” Reid does, in fact, favor such a train, and the project received a $45 million earmark in the transportation bill that President Bush signed last June.
According to the Washington Post, the stimulus bill contains $8 billion for high-speed rail, which could include the Las Vegas project and others.
In an interview, Risch said the thing that’s surprised him most about the debate over the stimulus was “the partisan nature of it.” He said, “There is no middle ground. … The other side’s answer to everything is, ‘We win.’ “
“We’re in serious times in this country, there isn’t anyone who disagrees with that,” Risch said. But, he said, “You’re not going to spend your way out of it. … It’s too simple, it can’t work that way.”