Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, has served Missouri’s 5th congressional district since 2005. Prior to becoming a congressman he served as Kansas City Mayor. Congressman Cleaver is much loved throughout the Kansas City area as both a political leader and as a United Methodist Pastor.
The Global Townhall is honored to welcome Congressman Cleaver to talk about the profound difference between being a mayor and a congressman, and about his experience with nasty partisan politics.
Gabrielle Reilly: So, please tell us about the difference in your experience between being a mayor and a congressman.
Congressman Cleaver: Sure. Well, being the mayor of a major American city means that you are on center stage of a national drama because in the city the things that are most important to people receives attention and they are the everyday, mundane, “I need this to work for me” kind of issues. You know, the stop sign is down at the corner, the trash pickup was a day late, there’s a pothole that I ran into yesterday. Those are the issues, I mean most people they aren’t aware of or interested in NATO. They don’t know the NATO members; they don’t know the big eight which I guess is now the big seven. They don’t know most of the issues that occupy a great amount of time in Washington. But they do know the local issues. They do know whether or not the streetlights are out. So, the American drama is being played out and you are right there in the middle of it in handling it.
In Washington, there is still drama but I don’t think many members believe that their response to citizen concerns will alter even an inch the way the world is moving. There is a frustrating part of being in Congress versus being the Mayor and that is, as I mentioned to you last time we met, if I’m driving… if I’m in the car as mayor, and we’re going down the street and I see a huge pothole, I pick up the phone in the car and say connect me with public works department and I can say to Ed Wolf, who is the public works director, “Ed, I’m at 41st and Main, there’s a huge pothole. People are hitting it and somebody’s going to tip their car.” And then if I went further out south to a meeting, the chances are extremely high that on my return trip that pothole will be filled.
In Washington, you’d have to introduce legislation to fill the pothole. Then you’d have to get a “pay for” and how much it’s going to cost from OMB and then you have a hearing on the legislation which may or may not lead you to having a bill on the floor. But, let’s assume you eventually get it to the floor, then ultimately it goes to the Rules Committee. If it makes it out of the Rules Committee there’s a rule attached to the debate and the debate may be four hours and then after the debate there’s a vote, and if you go through the process you’re looking at two to three years, maybe. Whereas in a city, an issue that almost everybody’s concerned about can be resolved in two to three hours versus two to three years.
Gabrielle Reilly: Right. So, partisan politics in D.C….I did an interview with Congressman Yoder and he appreciated working with you on different legislation. What’s your view of the current situation in regard to partisan politics and civility and what do you think we need to do about it?
Congressman Cleaver: I think Washington has become a very dark place and I have not figured out whether or not we are infecting the rest of the nation or whether congress is a microcosm of the world and we come to Washington pre-infected. Whichever it is, we have become politically tribal in this country to the point where hardly any legislation of substance is able to garner the support for approval. Whether it’s the tax extenders for about fifty companies or whether it’s a bill, which we call the transportation bill, the partisan divide is greater than ever and it’s based exclusively on ideology. There was a time when certain pieces of legislation would sail through because they were not seen as partisan. I mean, the transportation bill would be one, because it’s the most reliable creator of jobs in the U.S. economy. They used to be easy to get…we used to also find comfort in getting through legislation related to Medicare, Medicaid, the doc fix, where the American Medical Association says 31% of the doctors would bail out if we don’t keep physician payments at a respectable level. Medicare was actually signed into law here. Medicare was Harry Truman’s idea so when congress approved Medicare, President Lyndon Johnson and Ladybird Johnson flew here to Kansas City, went to Independence, and signed the bill in the presence of Harry Truman, whose idea had brought the debate into consideration in full view of the American public. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.
Gabrielle Reilly: What do you attribute that to? Maybe people are getting all of their information from a particular source that supports their ideology, so they sort of get five minute segments of just absolute rot?
Congressman Cleaver: Well, I think more than the networks, or the cable networks, the American public does not appear to be hungry for a lot of information. What they hunger for, it seems to me, is to turn on some kind of information program and have their views strengthened. So, most people don’t turn the channel to any kind of news or semi-news or news-inspired programs that will require contemplation. They want to turn out that tube and sit there and have every kind of view they hold confirmed. So, we have some culpability, we being the public.
Having said that, I also believe that many of the networks contribute, perhaps unknowingly, to the problem. Even CNN, because CNN, for example, wants to come across as so middle-of-the-road and non-partisan that they will not correct statements. For example, you know, let’s say…let’s take the Affordable Care Act. CNN reports that Senator X stood up and said that we are enrolling illegal immigrants in the ACA and instead of CNN saying, “Well, the law says that you can’t do that and we’ve not found any examples of that.” They won’t say that. They’ll just say, “Here’s what Senator X has said and he has also said that the other side will try to mislead the public.” They know the answers, they know the correct answers, they know the kind of information that would be helpful to the body of politic and to the nation but they won’t do it. They don’t get it.
Now, nobody expects Fox or MSNBC to lean in the opposite direction of their ideology. I mean, people on the left who look at MSNBC are not automatically going to lean to the right to accommodate or tolerate contrary views. So, then of course there’s the fairness doctrine of 1984 which essentially said that there were restrictions on not only how much candidates could spend but that free speech gave a right to people to go on radio or television, mass media, beyond anything except their opinion. You know, a right-wing radio announcer is not obligated to say, “And now for the other side.” That doesn’t happen and so you would be surprised, or many people would be surprised, at the people who watch what is an opinion show believing that it is a real, live, in real time story.
Gabrielle Reilly: So what do you think is the fairest news out there? You know, what would you recommend to the public to listen to?
Congressman Cleaver: PBS.
Gabrielle Reilly: Yes, the PBS News Hour. That’s my favorite because you get both sides of everything. It’s about as close as you can get to…
Congressman Cleaver: I used to live for those.
Gabrielle Reilly: I DVR them so I can watch them as I do other things, it’s great.
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