Former mayor talks to the city council, defends earmarks

File photo. Cleaver spoke recently at a transportation forum about the crisis in transportation funding.

File photo. Cleaver spoke recently at a transportation forum about the crisis in transportation funding.

By Joe Lambe

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former city mayor, addressed the city council Thursday on the national crisis of maintaining and funding infrastructure.

Congress has not been able to agree on any long-term funding. It has refused to raise the gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon that has long been woefully inadequate.

Cleaver said he had recently been to China, “where you can’t go anywhere where you do not see new roads and infrastructure being built.”

In this country, he said, states can’t plan for much-needed work without assurance of federal funds.

Also, he said, “Right now we’re losing billions of dollars because 34 percent of all urban railways are overcrowded.”

The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, he said, when politicians of both parties widely supported it for the good of the nation.

“We can’t do that anymore,” he said.

And Cleaver took a controversial turn by blaming part of the problem on the decline of earmarks, guarantees of money for particular recipients in federal appropriation documents.

“Taxpayers have been tricked into believing there is something wrong with earmarks,” he said.

Reform groups and some politicians, including Claire McCaskill, U.S. Senator and former Jackson County prosecutor, led attacks on earmarks that led Congress largely to ban them.

But earmark supporters say they should be part of the political process and can help politicians reach agreement.

Deals can be cut more easily, they say, if projects in a politician’s area get guaranteed funding and that politician can brag about bringing home bacon.

Political science professors Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly put out the pro-earmark position in their book, Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy.

The origin of the title: Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm said it would be a bad idea for government to build a cheese factory on the moon, but if Congress decided to do it, he would want “the milk to come from Texas cows.”

The authors admit that earmark use had a period when it went beyond historical norms, but say earmarks have rightfully part of democracy since the nation’s beginning.

The alternative is to give a centralized federal bureaucracy total control over how to dispense funds, they say.

McCaskill noted in a past statement that she has been a leader in attacking earmarks and said she has never requested one.

On Thursday, Councilman Jim Glover praised Cleaver for his great skill in getting them.

“Even as mayor, you brought a lot of federal and state money into this city,” Glover said. “You’ve always been good for that.”

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