Bachmann has love-hate affair with government

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 8:44 PM
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Michele Bachmann

Photo: Richard Shiro, Associated Press

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In the weeks running up to this month's Iowa GOP presidential straw poll, our two local candidates, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, had at least one thing in common: They both claimed to want the evil government off our backs.

It's an interesting notion from two people who have spent much of their lives on the government's back. As we move forward, it would be wise to keep in mind that those who scream loudest about shrinking government are often those who have taken the most from it.

"I'm a mom; I'm not a politician," Bachmann said shortly before winning the poll.

That's like me saying, "I'm a husband; I'm not a newspaperman."

I have worked at this newspaper far longer than I have at any other job. Yet, if you count Bachmann's stint at the Internal Revenue Service, the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Congress, she has been a public employee for about 16 years -- longer than I have worked at the Star Tribune. Believe me, it feels like a long time.

After time for a cup of coffee in the private sector, Pawlenty pulled up a chair to the government table and began feasting -- for the next 18 years. Talk about job stability. He is now experiencing life outside the public trough for the first time in nearly two decades, but I'm betting that won't last long.

One pundit actually tried to make the case on the Sunday news shows that Bachmann's stint as a "tax attorney" gives her special skills to cut taxes. Hmm. Bachmann's job was actually to take taxes from people who didn't pay them. You know what Mark Twain said about tax collectors: "The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin."

According to a story in this paper on Sunday, Bachmann's stint at the IRS was pretty unremarkable, so maybe her heart wasn't in it. In four years on the job, she litigated only two minor cases, not against corporate or white-collar tax cheats, but a low-paid American Indian man and a warehouse worker.

On the other hand, the Star Tribune reporter and a writer for the New Yorker magazine talked to several attorneys who worked with Bachmann at the IRS, and they all said Bachmann was good at something: using those cushy government benefits she criticizes so much. They said Bachmann was on maternity leave much of the time during her stint at the IRS.

It's not the first time the Big Bad Government rhetoric didn't match reality. It's been widely reported that Bachmann's family has received nearly $260,000 in federal farm subsidies on her father-in-law's farm, of which she is a partner. Also well known is the $24,000 her husband's clinic got from the state and feds for a training program.

Could that mean that the government actually has a function and can be what is lovingly called a "job creator"?

In fact, all the while Bachmann was railing against "pork" projects and stimulus money, she had her hand out. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Huffington Post found Bachmann sought federal government help or aid on at least 16 separate occasions. Sixteen.

Many were for funds set aside through President Obama's stimulus program, which she once called "fantasy economics." Perhaps the most interesting requests for money were the ones she made to the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency she said she would eliminate as president. At the New Hampshire Republican presidential debate in June, Bachmann said the EPA should be "renamed the job-killing organization of America."

That's a funny comment to come from a person who a few months earlier had begged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to support a $270,806 grant application from Voigt's Bus Service in St. Cloud so the company could purchase newer, more energy-efficient motor coaches.

Here's the kicker in Bachmann's pitch for government cash: "Voigt's Bus Service, with Community Transportation, Incorporated, is committed to bringing long-term benefits to the environment and the economy and they wish to accomplish this through the Clean Diesel Grant Program," she wrote.

Wow. So she admits the agency is not only a potential job creator, but is good for the environment? I don't know what's more shocking, that Bachmann wanted to give government money to a private company, or that she actually likes the environment. It turns out she has made requests for moola to the EPA going back to 2007.

Bachmann has said government spending "would make any local smorgasbord embarrassed." Yet she has seemed willing at times to treat the government like an Old Country Buffet, even as she complains about its large portions.

I called Voigt's to see if they got that grant. I haven't heard back, but either way they are still in business.

I hope they got it, and if they did, you know what? Good for Bachmann. To my knowledge, none of her requests for help were frivolous, which means she is doing her job. Just like all the other representatives who seek federal aid.

I just wish she, and the others, would quit feigning animosity toward the institution that has fed and clothed them and be more honest about what the government does.

Heck, Bachmann could even take credit for helping a St. Cloud business, and I would applaud her. But that might make her look like a politician, when we all know she's just a mom.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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