Rep. Emanuel Cleaver has solution for D.C. gridlock: Bring back earmarks

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., takes his seat on the House Financial Services committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., takes his seat on the House Financial Services committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. AP

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City says he has a solution to Washington gridlock: Bring back earmarks.

Cleaver is launching a long-shot campaign on Capitol Hill to lift the 5-year-old moratorium on earmarking. The practice allowed lawmakers to add language to legislation ordering a federal agency to spend a specific amount on a project back home.

Cleaver says that earmarks he championed over the years have helped his constituents in concrete ways, from providing $190,000 to renovate a domestic violence shelter to securing $9.57 million to help control the flooding of Turkey Creek along Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City.

Earmarks like these could help ease the repeated stalemates on Capitol Hill, Cleaver says, because they give lawmakers a personal stake in passing legislation that might otherwise fall victim to partisan bickering.

Getting rid of them was “one of the most ridiculous things that has happened to the political body in probably a quarter century or more,” he said in an interview.

The former Kansas City, Mo., mayor’s position puts him at odds with many of his colleagues, including a fellow Democrat from Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill.

McCaskill pushed to establish the temporary ban on earmarks in 2010 and remains a staunch opponent.

“I find the notion that members of Congress would need earmarks in order to cooperate and do their jobs depressing,” she wrote in an email.

Even at its peak of $29 billion in 2006, earmarking accounted for a relatively small percentage of the federal budget. But many voters came to see the practice as wasteful and corrupt – a symbol of everything that was wrong with business as usual in Washington, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog in Washington.

It’s hard to imagine Cleaver’s quest succeeding under such circumstances, Schatz said.

“Voters have made it clear they have no interest whatever in bringing back earmarks,” he said. “I don’t think it will go anywhere.”

Cleaver is forging ahead anyway. He says he has a lot of support behind the scenes from lawmakers frustrated by the ban. He plans to introduce a bipartisan resolution calling for the reimplementation of earmarks, although he doubts it will get a vote in an election year given the “demagoguery” of earmarks in the public.

“I have been talking about it – not quietly, openly – to Republicans and Democrats, and there are some Republicans who support earmarks because they know it’s the right thing to do, but they say the well has been so poisoned that they can’t stand up publicly and say it,” he said.

If the people who believed in earmarks were willing to stand up and say it, we’d get earmarks back tonight.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

Cleaver complains that the term earmark was unfairly tainted back in the 1990s by “three or four bad projects.”

The congressman even defends the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a project that became synonymous with wasteful government spending when then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska requested a $223 million earmark to connect a small town in his state to a regional airport on an island with just a few dozen residents. Congress revoked the earmark amid a public outcry and the bridge was never built.

From Cleaver’s perspective, though, “Sen. Stevens had a legitimate right to try to take care of his constituents.”

Most earmarks, he said, help ensure that federal money reaches often-overlooked rural and inner-city communities. They also give lawmakers something tangible to point to when voters ask what they’re doing for them in Washington.

“In Kansas City, for example, we have a bridge over the Missouri River called the Bond Bridge,” Cleaver said, “and the money for that bridge came from a friend of mine, Kit Bond,” a former Missouri senator. “We have projects all over Kansas City that wouldn’t be here but for earmarks.”

One of Cleaver’s main arguments in favor of earmarks is that without them, Congress cedes too much power to the executive branch. Cleaver thinks that if voters – especially conservative voters – understood this consequence, they’d be less opposed to earmarking.

“When we approve these spending bills, I wonder who (opponents of earmarks) think makes the decisions on how the money is going to be spent,” he said. “It’s not their member of Congress. It’s not their senator. . . . It’s people down in the bowels of government who people never elected and whose names people will never see.”

People say we’re trying to create an imperial presidency. That’s exactly what we’re unconsciously doing when you give the spending authority to one branch of government.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

Even as Cleaver works to bring back earmarks, McCaskill has taken the opposite tack. Along with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, McCaskill has repeatedly introduced the Earmark Elimination Act. The bill, which has yet to get a vote, would make the temporary ban on all earmarks permanent.

In the past, she’s also backed other bills that would let the president use a line-item veto to cut spending such as earmarks in big appropriations bills and would establish a searchable public database of all earmarks. More recently, she supported legislation that would recoup earmarked funds that federal agencies have yet to spend.

McCaskill boasts that she has never requested an earmark, although she is a strong supporter of federal grants and isn’t shy about advocating for Missouri agencies and other applicants from the state to receive them. The difference, she points out, is that federal grants are awarded after a merit-based, competitive process, not through deal-making among politicians.

“All public money should be spent on a basis of merit,” McCaskill said. “In the old days of earmarks, those decisions were based on congressional seniority, committee assignment, political party and the power of lobbyists.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise