WASHINGTON — Imagine a $48 billion congressional earmark.
That's billion, not million. Even if it were $48 million, it would still be a pretty sizable chunk of taxpayer money for some special project.
But $48 billion for one earmark is three times the cost of all of the congressional earmarks in the 2010 budget. It would be the biggest earmark of all time.
What member of Congress would test the limits of a very cranky public, down on Washington, down on spending and that just last month threw a lot of the bums out?
A lot of people think that Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri did just that.
He didn't, but tell that to the political blogosphere, where information gets vacuumed up, is rarely vetted, and whatever its provenance or accuracy, is put out there and generally accepted by many readers as fact.
"Do you think I would request a $48 billion earmark in a city that is broke? asked Cleaver, a former mayor of Kansas City. " . . . I mean, it's absolutely ludicrous."
Here's what happened.
The Southeast Missourian newspaper in Cape Girardeau, a six-hour drive from Kansas City, published a column this week by Mike Jensen that began: "Rep. Cleaver has proposed a $48 billion earmark."
Members of Congress who submit earmark requests are required to post them on their websites. Cleaver shows every earmark request that he receives, but he doesn't distinguish which ones he's actually submitted to the House Appropriations Committee for funding.
The $48 billion earmark request was submitted by Lamar Mickens of Kansas City, for "phase one" of a "mass scale urban reclamation project for combating, reducing, reversing and/or eliminating poverty."
Cleaver never submitted it.
"Some ideas are absolutely crazy," he said. "But we don't say to them, 'You're stupid and this is a crazy idea.' So we put all of these requests up. People don't like to be dismissed."
But the story went viral. The Drudge Report. Conservative blogs. The Wall Street Journal. All of them talked about Cleaver's $48 billion earmark.
Suddenly he was the poster child for government spending run amok.
Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan anti-earmark watchdog group, said he sympathizes with Cleaver for how the political echo chamber portrayed him as the author of such a boondoggle.
But he also said that Cleaver shares some responsibility because he should make clear which earmarks he actually requests.
"I think that it shows a level of contempt for transparency to post all the earmark requests and not delineate which ones he actually submitted," Ellis said. "I could submit a $48 billion request to Congressman Cleaver. But who cares? What matters is what does the elected official think is a valuable use of taxpayer dollars."
Cleaver said that in the future, his office will make it clear which earmarks requests he submits, and which requests he receives.
As the controversy grew and more facts became clear, The Southeast Missourian kept the column on its website but posted an editor's note. It said that Cleaver said he hadn't "proposed" the $48 billion earmark. The newspaper also wrote a news story about the controversy.
Jensen, the columnist, couldn't be reached for comment.
"Our policy is, unless there's something putting someone in danger, we don't pull things off our website," said Bob Miller, the editor.
That was little comfort for Cleaver.
"Someone who is partisan can attack someone and do so without accurate information have it spread across the country in a matter of hours by bloggers," Cleaver said. "The echo chamber has become the inseparable part of the news cycle. It's really dangerous."
As a postscript, all of the earmarks included in a proposed 2011 spending bill, including $17 million of them that Cleaver actually did submit, are now dead. The bill didn't have enough support. Congress plans to work on short-term spending legislation.
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