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Transportation Nominee Loves Him Some Pork

The confirmation hearings for Transportation Secretary-designate Ray LaHood, set to begin today, may have gotten a bit more complicated this morning. The Washington Post reports that as an Illinois GOP congressman, LaHood was a big fan of earmarks — often to the benefit of some of his largest campaign contributors. LaHood retired from the House last month.

Ray LaHood, who represented Illinois in the House for seven terms, sponsored $60 million in earmarks last year, steering at least $9 million in federal money to campaign donors, a Washington Post analysis shows. An opponent of earmark reform efforts in Congress, LaHood ranks roughly among the top 10 percent in the House for sponsoring earmarks in 2008, according to a watchdog group.

LaHood’s record poses an important question as hearings begin today that will explore how he would administer part of a $775 billion stimulus package that will be directed to the Transportation Department. LaHood has defended his use of earmarks as a way to direct federal money to decaying communities in his district and insisted there is no connection between his earmarks and projects benefiting campaign donors.

Among the earmarks:

LaHood’s biggest campaign donor is Peoria’s largest corporation: Caterpillar. The company and its workers have donated more than $190,000 to LaHood since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, LaHood secured $7.8 million to help the company and its offshoots develop technologies for potential future military contracts.

Last year, he also pushed for $333,000 to construct the new Lakeview Museum in Peoria, part of a project that will include a Caterpillar-financed museum focused on the company’s history.

LaHood sponsored $1.49 million in earmarks directed to Springfield’s Memorial Medical Center to fund the purchase of computer-based simulation technology and other equipment. Memorial and its lobbyist Cassidy and Associates together have given $60,000 to LaHood.

Local road-building companies also have supported LaHood. United Contractors Midwest, led by president James Bruner, is often ranked as his second or third largest donor, and its officials have donated $24,925 to LaHood. Three leading members of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association have given more than $60,000 to LaHood.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged that there will be no earmarks in the upcoming economic stimulus package (though, as my colleague Dave Weigel recently mused, “One man’s earmark is another man’s shovel-ready project”). Presumably, the new administration will be a bit more concerned with overseeing the disbursement of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money than the current White House occupants, especially in the wake of the TARP debacle.

But still, with revelations yesterday of Treasury Secretary-nominee Tim Geithner’s little tax problem (Wait, he’s supposed to do a better job than Hank Paulson in keeping track of how federal funds are being spent?), and now this, these are not the questions a new administration promising change wants to be answering during cabinet confirmation hearings.

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