In debate about stimulus, arguing about turf

The National Mall would receive $200 million in the stimulus bill.
The National Mall would receive $200 million in the stimulus bill.

The economic stimulus package championed by the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders includes a whopping $825 billion worth of spending and tax cuts.

It’s a big bill, which makes it a big target.

Armed with a lively set of talking points, Republicans have stepped before the microphones and gone on TV in the last week to take aim at the legislation the House will vote on today. (The Senate will take it up next week.)

The charges? The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes hundreds of millions of dollars for contraceptives; $360 million for sexually transmitted disease education; $200 million for new sod at the National Mall in Washington; $726 million for an afterschool snack program.

How, they asked, would those stimulate the economy?

PolitiFact found their complaints contained some valid points, some stretching, and some pure fabrication.

Here’s an example of the latter: Straining to make a point on Fox News last week, Rep. Eric Cantor, the House's Republican whip, said that in a meeting with President Obama last week, Cantor challenged Obama to get the pork barrel spending out of the bill.

“I mean, there's $300,000 for a sculpture garden in Miami," Cantor told the TV audience.

But do a word search on "sculpture" in the 647-page stimulus bill that is now before the House and you'll come up blank. That's because it's not in there.

So where did Cantor get it? Well, the plan would give $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts. There's no telling how the NEA might spend that money, Cantor's staff said, so they looked at some projects the NEA has funded in the recent past. They came across $300,000 the NEA awarded last year to the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami to restore an outdoor statuary.

In other words, Vizcaya got its money last year and isn’t getting any this year and Cantor knows it. We gave that statement our lowest rating, Pants on Fire .

In the same interview, Cantor said that in the version of the bill that passed the Ways and Means Committee last week, "for every dollar that is spent to help small businesses, $4 is being spent to help upkeep the grass on the lawns of Washington."

He's referring to a $200 million plan to renovate the deteriorating National Mall, including new grass. The project has become a popular punching bag for Republican leaders critical of spending in the stimulus package. But the new grass is just a fraction of the plan for the National Mall, which by most accounts is in serious disrepair, including the need to repair sea walls next to the Jefferson Memorial that are slowly collapsing into the Tidal Basin. We ruled that one False.

The Republican swipes haven't all been off-target, though.

For example, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans attacked part of the plan that would have funneled millions of dollars to contraceptives.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to defend the contraception spending. In an interview Sunday on ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked, "Hundreds of millions of dollars to expand family planning services. How is that stimulus?"

Pelosi responded, "Well, the family planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children's health, education and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those — one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government."

The AP reported Tuesday that Obama asked House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to ax the plan to extend birth control coverage under Medicaid from the stimulus package. Democrats on Tuesday prepared to drop the provision.

Keith Ashdown of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense said that with such a massive spending plan, "there are surely going to be bad projects in there." But he noted that his organization, which specializes in outing wasteful pork barrel spending, had not yet found any earmarks. And, he noted, more than $200 million was allocated to various inspector generals' offices, "so there will be a lot of eyes looking at the money. The question is what can they do to stop bad expenditures."

Obama and other Democratic leaders have stressed an urgent need to move quickly to pass the bill — Obama hopes to have it completed by mid February.

 “There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that,” Obama said Tuesday afternoon after meting with the House Republican Caucus. “In some cases they may just not be as familiar with what’s in the package as I would like.”