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Commentary

Lack of Clout

Jack Lessenberry

Fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few February days in South Carolina.

When I was there, one of the first things that struck me was how many government installations there were, many named either for Senator Strom Thurmond or Congressman Mendel Rivers, the long-dead chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Both men were notable racists. 

Rivers was also an alcoholic who urged President Johnson to use nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. But they were enormously successful in bringing home the bacon to their small, rather poor state.

That was a different era, and I am not suggesting that unrestrained pork barrel spending is good. But one of the things our representatives in Congress are supposed to do is to gain some clout and look after Michigan’s interests.

For whatever reason, ours have largely failed to do that. If you look at President Obama’s proposed new budget, you might well conclude this was a deep red state whose representatives specialized in insulting him.

In fact, Michigan gave the president a combined margin of nearly 1.3 million votes in his two elections. We haven’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate in more than twenty years.

Yet his budget gives our state a dismissive slap. New Senator Gary Peters has begged the administration for years for funding for a customs plaza for the New International Trade Crossing bridge.

This is a project vital to our economy, the region’s economy, and that of our closest ally, Canada.

Yet once again, that money isn’t there. Carl Levin, who left the Senate last month, had more seniority and power than Mendel Rivers ever did. But he apparently didn’t have enough, or care enough, to make this entirely appropriate thing happen.

President Obama is also from one of the Great Lakes states, and you would think their welfare would be important. But the President’s budget – for the second year in a row – would cut funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Last year, Congress wouldn’t let him do that. This year, he wants to cut funding from $300 to $250 million.

This didn’t please friends of the world’s greatest fresh water supply. The list goes on; Mr. Obama budgeted $1.3 billion for General Services Administration building projects across the country. Detroit gets nothing, so far as I can tell, though the GSA has asked for a pittance to fix the plumbing and heating systems in the federal courthouse.

If I understood why we get so little I’d explain it, but I don’t. You’d think the President would want to help boost new Senator Peters, an ardent supporter of his and the only Democrat in the nation to win an open seat last year. You’d also think Debbie Staben0w, who has now been in the senate fourteen years, would have some clout.

As it is, we have to hope that the Republicans who control Congress will at least not cut the few Michigan projects the President did fund, such as the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at MSU. We seem to have become sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of major industrial states.

There are times when you have to think that a little pork just might be good.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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