On Jim Clyburn, earmarks, race, and representing a poor district

I’ve never liked one thing that traditionally has been core to the makeup of members of Congress: bringing home the bacon.

Yes, I know it’s a particularly honored tradition in South Carolina, from Mendel Rivers through Strom Thurmond and on and on. This state was devastated in The Recent Unpleasantness, and it was sort of natural in subsequent generations for folks to want their elected representatives to bring home Yankee bacon whenever possible.

Doesn’t mean that’s the right way to run a government. The federal government should look at the entire country and decide where it needs to build military bases or roads or bridges or place programs of any sort, according to which locations best suit the needs of the whole nation. Or where the greatest need for a particular service might be at a given time — such as disaster services. Largess should not flow according to which lawmakers has the most pull.

Congress has been so bad about this that when we decided we needed to close some military bases the nation no longer needed, we had to set up BRAC to prevent interference by individual members of Congress. It’s been a successful process, but the need for it testifies to a painful failure of our basic system of government.

Congressional pull is not the way to set priorities for our government. This is particularly obvious to a lot of people when we look at spending, but I’ve always been concerned that it’s just a bad policy all-around for making effective decisions for the country. And it disenfranchises Americans whose representatives have less pull.

So it is that I’ve been pleased (in general) with Jim DeMint’s efforts to stop earmarks (which are actually only a small part of the problem), and have never been much of a fan of Jim Clyburn’s more traditional bring-home-the-bacon approach.

But I’m not without sympathy for Clyburn. To explain why, I’ll share a story that at first may seem unrelated. I did not witness this, but I’ve heard about it.

A large part of why Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, as you will recall, was that he proposed to clean up government. No more Watergates. He promised, although we didn’t yet use this word for it back then, transparency. It was a huge deal; he was never going to lie to us. So after the election, there was a meeting in Columbia of people who had worked in his campaign in South Carolina. Probably a pretty big meeting, since back in those days, we actually had some Democrats in this state. And the Carter guy who was conducting the meeting told them that they shouldn’t expect any inside track on getting positions in the new administration. Everything was going to be open and aboveboard and a level playing field, and there was to be no smoke-filled room patronage.

One of the campaign supporters in the room, a local black leader who was then quite young (I’d want to talk to him and refresh my memory of the story’s details before using his name), protested, “But we just got into the room, and we just started smoking.”

Which was true enough. And more than once have I heard such protests from black politicians — now that we have some political influence, you want to weed such influence out of government.

Well, yes, I do. And I’m sorry some folks just got into the room, but we’ve had enough of that kind of politics.

Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to Jim Clyburn’s desire to get some federal investment into parts of the state that were bypassed when white politicians were grabbing federal resources for South Carolina. This isn’t about unsavory practices; this is about funds that will be distributed somewhere, so why not in your neglected district? Perfectly understandable. Even admirable. So while I am against, for instance, the bridge he wants to build between Lone Star and Rimini, I understand his desire to get some infrastructure into that area that might help economic development flow in behind it.

Against this background, I was interested in Warren Bolton’s column in The State today. I had actually missed it in a cursory skim through the paper this morning (I was conversing with several people while perusing), so I’m glad that my attention was called back to it by a release from, quite naturally, Jim Clyburn’s office. It was headlined, “Earmarks saving grace for Clyburn’s district.” An excerpt:

Frankly, I think the free-wheeling system that has allowed members of Congress to target pet projects for funding is too loosely monitored and arbitrary and, therefore, can be wasteful. But I don’t think that earmarks in general are bad; they can be used to make sure worthwhile projects are funded. In addition to a lack of transparency, the big problem is that the system doesn’t ensure that those important things get done.

But Mr. Clyburn didn’t invent this system. It was in place eons before he even arrived in Congress. Given that those in his district have grave needs that aren’t being met by the state, which has yet to come up with an effective way to address rural challenges that can’t be met by cash-poor local governments, he’s doing what he can.

It’s amazing to me how so many in this state can criticize Mr. Clyburn’s actions when they should be familiar with the challenge of rural South Carolina. While we get many letters to the editor from writers taking issue with Mr. Clyburn on legitimately debatable grounds, such as his positions on issues, his philosophy and even his use of earmarks, many others make statements and accusations that are just plain unfair, false and — quite frankly — racist….

I, like Warren, have fielded some of those calls — and emails, and letters, and blog comments. And while I may often agree with the person commenting that a particular spending proposal is a bad idea, it is disturbing to hear the undertone, the emotion that underlies the complaining. And Warren is right to use what he calls “the ‘R’ word” to describe this thing we hear. It’s the same undertone that I so often hear in the constant attacks on the very idea of public schools, or of government in general — because so many whites in our state, and in other parts of the country as well, have gotten it into their heads that government exists to take money away from honest, hard-working, moral, thrifty, sensible white people and give it, outright, to lazy, shiftless, no-good black people.

Not to put too fine a point on it.

Anyway, I’ve probably given you enough to discuss, but I’d like to point out another passage in Warren’s column:

I get lots of letters and calls from people who try to suggest that Mr. Clyburn can be a big spender and favor increasing taxes on the rich because he is insulated by voters in his “gerrymandered” majority-black district; some all but suggest that the congressman configured the 6th District himself.

But the truth is that Republicans in the S.C. State House gerrymandered the district in an effort to pack as many of the state’s black people together as possible so they could get as many Republicans as possible elected to Congress. That meant creating a majority-black district that has lots of rural areas that are heavily poor, undereducated and undeveloped. They’re areas that lack infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads — or libraries, theaters and bowling allies.

Amen to that Warren, and I’m glad to see you writing that, since I’m not at the paper to do it anymore.

I would amend his characterization of what happened slightly, though. I recall particularly what happened in the early ’90s in the Legislature: Republicans worked with black Democrats to draft a plan, over the resistance of the white Democrats who ran the SC House, that created several more majority-black districts.

Black lawmakers were frustrated with Speaker Bob Sheheen and other Democratic leaders because they were not willing to draw as many “majority-minority” districts as possible. The motivation of the Republicans was less direct. They had figured out that for every district you make majority black, you remove black voters from several other districts, thereby making those seats safe for Republicans, and unsafe for Democrats of any color. So, a tiny gain for those who wanted a few more black lawmakers, but a HUGE, strategic victory for Republicans who wanted to take over South Carolina.

Once that reapportionment plan was in place, the way to power was paved for the GOP. It put them in striking distance. They had big gains in the 1994 election. That, plus some key defections by white Democrats after the election (indeed, the earlier defection of David Beasley to the GOP had given them the head of their ticket), and we saw the Republicans take over the House in January 1995.

But I’ve reminisced enough. Time for y’all to have your say.

8 thoughts on “On Jim Clyburn, earmarks, race, and representing a poor district

  1. Scout

    Well now I have “Birdhouse In Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants stuck in my head, but that’s OK; it’s a good song. (It has the phrase “not to put too fine a point on it” in it).

    Speaking of that point you were not putting too fine a point on, I think you nailed it. I encounter that attitude all the time and find it very troubling. It is an oft expressed attitude in the comments on most any article on The State site, for example, but I also encounter it among co-workers frequently.

    I also understand and respect the idea of doing what you can with the tools you have to help out the situation within your control when no other mechanism to address an obvious problem is available or working like it should.

    Reply
  2. martin

    This has been the GOP strategy, not only in SC, but for the whole country. It is a part of the Southern Strategy that has taken hold all over the nation, polarizing state legislatures and the Congress. The Republican Party has national strategies to enact their goals that they have been working on, apparently under the radar of the Democrats, for 40 years. Redistricting has been their major tool in accomplishing this.

    California Hispanics, particularly, are not too happy with the non-legislative redistricting commission’s use of geography and population as the primary criteria for districts. But, the plan is doing serious damage to many “safe” districts, Republican, too. Individual hispanics and blacks need to seriously consider that holding office or being represented by “someone who looks like me” may actually set back their political goals because it has created the my way or the highway situations we have today by taking all moderation out of the political process.

    The LATimes reported a few weeks ago that this year’s Congressional redistricting will be the first time since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 that a Democrat was president and in control of the Justice Department when redistricting took place. Of course, that’s because Republicans have been in the WH for 28 of the last 42 years. That’s why we have had the massive gerrymandering to create safe white GOP districts and throw a few bones to minorities since then. It will be interesting to see how DOJ handles it.

    The Clyburn bashers blame LBJ, but I think that just must be what Rush tells them to do.

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  3. Doug Ross

    Term limits would put a huge dent in the pork barrel process. It’s seniority that gives congressmen the power to bring the pork home thus allowing them to remain in office. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

    And it’s all done by spending other people’s money… or wasting it in the case of Clyburn. Useless bridges. Funding to colleges that can’t be tracked. Nepotism….

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  4. j

    Martin, thank you for your perspective and accurate observations. When I read Brad’s post, I was reminded of an exhortation from the Book of Ecclesiasticus which states, “Do not sow in the furrows of injustice, for fear of reaping a sevenfold crop.” Also, the jealousy of the older son who didn’t think that the prodigal son, his younger brother, should be so honored by his father. This gives us an insight into our modern “contempt” for affirmative actions and the continuing southern (racial) strategy of politicians.
    I remember the Japanese confinement reaction during WWII and the renaming of Germany Street to Liberty Street in Columbia. My grandfather, a classical musician from Germany, came to the US before WWI and experienced contempt toward the “Krauts.”
    But, it’s a hell of a turn of events to see a people who were considered 3/5 of a person for representation nor could they vote and whose only value was to serve his white master’s agrarian and household needs on the plantation including sex in many cases. May God bless Th. Jefferson and Ole Strom.
    I wonder how long and valued Jim DeMint’s legacy will be vs Jimmy Carter’s. Contrast Demint’s values and lack of support for “earmarks” and his votes during Bush’s tenure for redistributing wealth and for his votes for not funding two wars and programs.

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  5. Ralph Hightower

    I agree with Doug that term limits would reduce the pork barrel process.

    However, until there are term limits in place, incumbency is difficult to defeat.

    Joe “You Lie!” Wilson also has his share of pork!

    Reply
  6. j

    Even the native American Cherokee nation has problems with letting their former slaves vote in their tribal elections! What a hell of a turn of events.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/16/cherokee-nation_n_966236.html

    “TULSA, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation’s election commission voted Wednesday to allow descendants of slaves once owned by tribal members to cast ballots for principal chief, but they’ll only count in the event of a court order.

    Federal officials objected to a ruling last month by the tribe’s highest court that found only people of direct Cherokee ancestry could be members of the tribe and vote in the upcoming election, essentially denying ballots to some 2,800 freedmen descendants.”

    Reply

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