Local columnist sparks statewide earmarks controversy

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kansas City, Mo., Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is defending himself to the national media, saying a Southeast Missouri columnist's article that claims he was trying to seek $48 billion in federal funding for an inner-city revitalization project is false.

"I think it would be hilarious if thousands of people did not believe it," said Cleaver, who is serving his third term representing the 5th District of Missouri in the House of Representatives. "It's the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced in my years in politics."

It began Wednesday, when a column by Michael Jensen of Sikeston ran in the Southeast Missourian, asserting that Cleaver proposed a $48 billion earmark for a project called the Epicenter, an urban reclamation project for revitalizing low-income areas in Kansas City's inner city.

The project is one of 127 proposals that were submitted to Cleaver via his website earlier this year for fiscal year 2011 and were posted on the site. But he posts every proposal he receives from constituents, he said, and not those that he actually chooses to send to Congressional appropriations committees.

"I post those that are ridiculous and those that are sound," Cleaver said. "But I have never submitted a request for a $48 billion earmark to do anything. If I ever asked for $48 billion, I would vote against myself. Anybody who asked for that much ought to be removed from Congress. It didn't happen. It didn't almost happen. I've done what I've always done."

The wording on Cleaver's website caused the confusion.

"Earmarks are funds requested by a member of Congress to be placed in an appropriation bill," Cleaver's website explains. "These bills fund the government's many programs and operations and carry with them federal funds that can be used by local governments and organizations. In an effort to make this cryptic process more transparent, all earmarks requested of the Congressman are posted below."

The link takes the website users to a document that lists the $48 billion request. Below the link, the website language continues, "It is important to note that this list is not what has been chosen to be funded. Members of Congress who sit on the appropriations subcommittees will make the final judgment on what projects will be funded. Very few of these projects will ultimately be funded, but the Congressman will fight for every one he submits."

Cleaver actually submitted 16 of those 127 requests to appropriations committees this year that total $17.335 million. The $48 billion proposal was not among them.

But the story gained traction anyway, based upon Cleaver's website. The story was picked up by the Drudge Report and The Wall Street Journal, and Cleaver taped an interview with Fox News Thursday afternoon.

Cleaver spokesman Danny Rotert acknowledged the wording as "not as clear as it should have been."

Rotert said the website will likely be changed early next year to include the lists of the proposals that Cleaver submits to appropriations committees.

Jensen said Thursday he stands by his column. Jensen, who said he received a call of support from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill after the column ran, thinks the main issue is being lost in the debate.

"This $48 billion proposal is so outlandish it sticks out," he said. "I don't think Congressman Cleaver ever imagined it stood a chance. But to put it on his website, especially without a full explanation, runs counter to the philosophy of what an earmark should be."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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101 W. 31 Street, Kansas City, MO

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