Michele Bachmann’s record: Earmarks, farm subsidies and pardons?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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When it comes to Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party rhetoric doesn’t always match the record. Should she launch a serious bid for president, Bachmann would likely find herself defending a slew of questionable votes and decisions, including on earmarks, pardons and farm subsidies.

Bachmann’s penchant for earmarks dates back to her days in the Minnesota state Senate. Despite her reputation as a fiscal conservative, from 2001-2006, then-state Senator Bachmann proposed more than $60 million in earmarks, including a $710,000 “Bond For Centerville Local Improvements Around Highway 14” and a $40,000,000 “Bond for Lino Lakes And Columbus Township Highway Interchanges.”

Doug Sachtleben, Bachmann’s communications director, sought to explain the earmarks, arguing that voters resent “taking money from taxpayers in one state to pay for a host of wasteful projects in other states.” He added that voters “also expect that things like road projects should be done at the state level, where voters can have a say through the selling of bonds.” These are not absurd arguments — bridges have to get built somehow — but Tea Party activists may find the argument that earmarks are fine at the state level as appealing as Mitt Romney’s argument that individual health care mandates are fine so long as they are enacted at the state level.

The federalist argument is also severely undercut by the fact that since joining the U.S. Congress in 2007, Bachmann has appropriated more than $3.7 million in earmarks. What is more, when Republicans sought an earmark moratorium, Bachmann pushed to exclude transportation projects from the ban.

Bachmann may also be plagued by her involvement in a controversial pardon. In 2007, Bachmann wrote a letter requesting a presidential pardon for a convicted drug-smuggler and money-launderer named Frank Vennes. Vennes was convicted of money laundering in 1988 and pleaded no contest to a cocaine and weapons charge. Making matters worse, he and his wife donated a total of $27,600 to Bachmann’s 2006 and 2008 election.

On October 2, 2008, Rep. Bachmann wrote a second letter after Vennes’ home was raided by federal agents investigating his connection to a billion dollar Ponzi scheme, this time admitting: “Regrettably, it now appears that I may have too hastily accepted his [Frank Vennes] claims of redemption and I must withdraw my previous letter.” Bachmann’s spokesman tells me, Rep. Bachmann “has remained disassociated from Mr. Vennes and is saddened by the latest charges that were filed against him.” Some have questioned whether or not evangelical Christians like Bachmann may be naive when it comes to claims of redemption. Should Bachmann’s campaign gain steam, she will likely have to answer questions about her judgment.

Bachmann’s fiscally conservative positions will also need to be squared with the fact that from 1995-2009, the Bachmann Family Farm (still listed as being owned by her deceased father-in-law) collected $259,332 in federal farm subsidies. According to financial disclosures, Bachmann has personally reported income of between $15,001-$50,000 from “Bachmann Family Farm LP. Bachmann & Associates.” (Additionally, the Christian psychology clinic run by Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, has received nearly $30,000 in state funding since 2007.)

Bachmann’s team tells me the family farm was put in a trust in order to provide for succession, which means that while the financial disclosure paperwork shows her as benefiting by virtue of her role as trustee, she has not received any of the money and is not involved in any operational decisions. Nevertheless, for a candidate who portrays herself as a paragon of fiscal conservatism, this may raise difficult questions.

Putting aside questions of ideology and judgment, Bachmann’s effectiveness as a legislator will almost certainly come into question if she begins to gain traction as a candidate. Since becoming a member of the U.S. Congress in 2007, even her fans concede that her legislative career has been relatively unremarkable. During an interview with The Daily Caller, Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, called her an “articulate spokesman” for the Tea Party, but added: “She doesn’t have a long list of legislative accomplishments.”

In fact, during her four years and four months in Congress, Bachmann has sponsored and passed only two bills (one recognizing the 150th anniversary of Minnesota and one honoring public child welfare agencies) and three resolutions. (Note: Her Healthcare Fiscal Accountability Act in the current Congress has 91 co-sponsors and her St. Croix River crossing legislation has bipartisan co-sponsorship and the support of Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. She is also talking with Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar about working together on this issue.)

Truth be told, none of the thirteen Republican freshman class members who came to Congress in 2007 can boast impressive legislative accomplishments. It is difficult for a newly-elected member of the minority party — which, until the last four months, described Bachmann — to pass legislation. But it is also fair to note that Bachmann, unlike her fellow House Republicans, is seriously flirting with running for president.

“As a member of Congress, Bachmann is effective as a representative of a certain brand of unapologetic conservatism,” says Philip Klein, a senior writer for The Washington Examiner.  But “when it comes to choosing a presidential candidate,” he added, “I think conservatives need to look beyond who they like or agree with the most, and carefully consider who has the experience and record to be good at the job of being president.” Some conservatives may argue that passing new legislation is bad, but others believe her failure to pass legislation speaks to her lack of effectiveness in the body.

Another concern about Bachmann has to do with her ability to manage and retain her congressional office staffers. Bachmann’s high turnover is a running joke on the Hill. As one conservative staffer who wished to remain anonymous told TheDC: “Any member of Congress who goes through five chiefs [of staff] is a nightmare.” (Bachmann is now on her fifth chief of staff in five years.) Former Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey, who served as a Bachmann chief of staff, resigned from Bachmann’s staff after just five months. Carey recently told an AP reporter, “I don’t believe she would be ready for the position of the president of the United States.”

When it comes to staff turnover, Andy Parrish, Bachmann’s current chief of staff, brushed off the criticism, telling TheDC: “The woman literally works a 15-hour day and some people can’t keep up with that.” He also noted that Bachmann’s profile is “a platform to elevate your career” — in essence, arguing that Bachmann’s staffers are wooed away by companies that can pay more money for talent.

To be sure, most of Bachmann’s potential problems and challenges have been reported in the past, but they are not widely known by grassroots conservatives. But presidential campaigns up the ante, and if Bachmann finds herself starting to gain traction in places like Iowa, you can bet these problems will be brought to light by her opponents.