Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Holidays

Another year has passed far too quickly. In writing this week's "EC from DC" I looked back at the last few months of newsletters and it struck me how very little good news there was in 2008. There is no doubt as a nation we are charting the roughest seas in several generations.

But, there is hope and light, love and friendship in these times. Often in our nation's darkest hours we have reached deep and stunned the world with our ingenuity, compassion, and wisdom. And so that is our charge in the coming year.

Like you, I am looking forward to spending the holidays with my family. Every year we make the pilgrimage to my father's house in Texas to celebrate our togetherness. In ways, both literally and spiritually, Christmas is about finding our way home.

A few years ago, I shared with you a holiday message from President Truman delivered on Christmas Eve, 1948. He had come home, as he always did, to Bess's house at 219 North Delaware in Independence. I was out that direction last week and you can just imagine what it was like for the President. He mentions the sights and sounds of his street, a street that is virtually unchanged since he lived there. It is easy, even now, what he must have experienced making the turn from what was then 15th Street (now Truman Rd.) onto Delaware.

Bess and Margaret came home to Independence far prior to the President's arrival, neither being that fond of Washington, D.C. The President, however, always remained in Washington until after the staff party and then returned home for Christmas Eve.

So from his easy chair in Bess's front room, he pushed a button that lit the National Christmas Tree on the lawn of the White House and in that time of toil and turmoil delivered a message as appropriate and heartwarming today as it was in 1948.

"My fellow countrymen: I now light the National Community Christmas Tree on the lawn of the White House in Washington.

I have come out here to Independence with my family to celebrate the great home festival. For of all the days of the year Christmas is the family day. Christmas began that way.

The moving event of the first Christmas was the bringing forth of the first born in the stable in Bethlehem. There began in humble surroundings the home life of the Holy Family glorified in song and story and in the hearts of men down through the centuries. The great joys and mysteries of that event have forever sanctified and enriched all home life.

The Christmas tree which we have just lighted in the South Grounds of the White House back in Washington symbolizes the family life of the Nation. There are no ties like family ties. That is why I have made the journey back to Independence to celebrate this Christmas Day among the familiar scenes and associations of my old hometown.

These family ties reach out tonight to embrace the town, the State, the country, all of America-the whole world. The hallowed associations of Christmas draw all hearts toward home. With one accord we receive with joy and reverence the message of the first Christmas: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men".

This country, big as it has grown, has always been a close-knit community. It has had to be strong, too.

We needed the strength of giants and heroic courage to bring nature and the elements under control; to build our towns and that is particularly true here in Independence-and to extend our frontiers. We all know what the covered wagon symbolized.

But with all our strength we have always had a deep feeling of compassion-a human sympathy for the underdog, the oppressed of all lands, for all who bear heavy burdens. That is a part of the American spirit. I

have been thinking of all these things here in my home on North Delaware Street in Independence. I am speaking to you from our family living room. As I came up the street in the gathering dusk, I saw a hundred commonplace things that are hallowed to me on this Christmas Eve----hallowed because of their associations with the sanctuary of home.

I saw the lighted windows in the homes of my neighbors, the gaily decked Christmas trees, and the friendly lawns and gardens. The branches of the trees were bare and stark but somehow they looked familiar and friendly. I looked at all these familiar things-the same things that you all will see tonight as you go toward home.

These are the thoughts-simple, commonplace, everyday thoughts-that we all share tonight.

They are the thoughts that bind us together, one to another. They make up the great American epic---the epic of the home.

Yes, America is a big, friendly community. Maybe that is why we realize that we are a part of the whole world. We have had difficult problems, and that is why we can understand the problems of other peoples.

Our own struggle fostered this feeling of good will. And good will, after all, is the very essence of Christmas: peace and friendship to men of good will.

I want to say once more, with all the emphasis that I can command, that I am working for peace. I shall continue to work for peace. What could be more appropriate than for all of us to dedicate ourselves to the cause of peace on this Holy Night.

As a Nation we have a history of a little more than a century and a half. But the religion which came to the world heralded by the song of the Angels has endured for nineteen centuries. It will continue to endure. It remains today the world's best hope for peace if the world will accept its fundamental teaching that all men are brothers.

"God that made the world and all things therein . . . hath made of one blood all nations of man for to dwell on all the face of the earth." In the spirit of that message from the Acts of the Apostles, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas."

My warmest wishes to you and yours,


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

For Obama, Job First

By Emanuel Cleaver II
Published in The Washington Post,
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
page A17

The black D.C. cabdriver and I connected immediately when it became clear that he simply couldn't suppress his elation about the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. He told me that he had recently quashed some barbershop Obama-bashing arising from what some saw as Obama's failure to name enough blacks to his Cabinet. "I told these barbershop politicos," the cabbie said, "just wait until after he is sworn in, and then he will be free to do the black thing."

I winced and, rather clumsily, tried to explain that Obama will be the first black president, not the black president first. While it isn't my intention to hold up any critic of the president-elect to censure, I want to remind all those who strongly support the president-elect and wish desperately for him to succeed: If you like the honey, don't kick over the beehive.

Since Obama's historic Nov. 4 victory, there has been much discussion in the media suggesting that he faces a plate filled not only with issues related to the slumping economy and other urgent national challenges but also a hefty portion of the extravagant expectations of African Americans and other minority groups. Some, it seems, would rather put the new president into a pressure cooker instead of a melting pot.

I know something about what Obama faces. In 1991, I was elected Kansas City's first black mayor. I and more than 400 other African American mayors who served during the most diverse period in the political history of America's large cities experienced a similar, and understandable, unreasonableness from brothers and sisters who saw in our election an opportunity at last to get a slice of the American pie. Obama will fall short of fulfilling the considerable hopes and dreams of the minorities who supported him, just as we could not fulfill those of ours.

To be sure, he will do all he can. Just as the black mayors of the '90s appointed able blacks to positions that were previously beyond their reach, championed capital projects in often-ignored and ailing parts of their cities, and included minorities in municipal economic opportunities, President Obama will certainly be attentive to the unique needs of the nation's neglected. Clearly, the goal of the Obama administration will be to destroy, not supervise, any government impulse to favor one group of Americans over others.

But brothers and sisters of hue, we must be candid: Race relations in America are far from sublime. Despite Obama's election, there are still Americans who, like the ole Missouri mule, are awful backward about going forward. It would be absurd not to expect high-profile acts of racism to continue to occur, just as always. Obama 's administration won't have the power to prevent them; no administration could. Yes, such situations will now be addressed by an Obama-appointed attorney general, but they also must continue to be dealt with by civil rights organizations and, frankly, by each of us. The duty of the many cannot become the responsibility of the one, even if the one is a black president.

Obama surely knows that he owes enormous gratitude to the huge numbers of black Americans who toiled in his campaign and came out to the polls to help to elect him. I think every African American supporter of Obama can safely assume that Obama will do everything within his power to create a level playing field for all Americans by ensuring that they have a government that is just and fair.

But it is important to note that Obama will not be the nation's highest-profile civil rights leader. He will be the leader of the free world.

We must keep that in mind. Barack Obama cannot both agitate and legislate from the Oval Office. A horse cannot pull while kicking, and Obama has much pulling on his agenda. He will need to pull the U.S. economy out of the tank, U.S. troops out of Iraq and health-care costs back down to earth.

At this moment, the people of color who love this great nation are a part of something thrilling and exalting. Most of us thought that we would never see a black president in our lifetimes. Our coming together this past November was a beginning; staying together through the tough times ahead will be progress; and working together to build bridges, not walls, will be the sign that we are creating a change all can depend on.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Broken Down

Every week it seems I start this email telling you how frustrating the week has been. However frustrating these hearings and negotiations are in Washington, they pale in comparison to the insecurity, fear and anxiety being felt by millions of workers who are either standing in the unemployment line, or looking for a pink slip with every paycheck. So, while we shake our heads and stomp our feet in the Capitol, our Congressional troubles are trivial compared to the peril faced by far too many we serve.

The front page photo in the Kansas City Star is a good reminder of just what is at stake right now. In case you missed it, it features three material supervisors at the GM Fairfax plant watching C-SPAN yesterday, on their lunch break, as the Senate debated the auto rescue package. Three men whose families woke up to the news this morning that the Senate had failed to act on the proposal supported by the President and passed by the House.

The deal in the Senate broke down because some wanted the unions to agree to cut the salaries of the three men on the front page of the Star today and 7,200 of their fellow workers who call our community home.

At a time when the American worker is struggling, lay-offs are announced daily and the government is contemplating another stimulus package to encourage people to spend and boost the economy, cutting wages does not make much sense to me.

I am not saying that the auto rescue package was perfect — far from it. However, I fear that those who have never liked unions and never supported union workers used this dire moment for the auto makers to make a point while playing Russian roulette with the livelihoods of millions of families.

General Motors has testified that without a bridge loan they may not make it the rest of the year. It seems some Members of Congress are willing to see if their projections are correct. I am not. Economists from the left, right and center agree that our economy cannot sustain the damage a failed auto industry would yield.

Proof of the impact on our local economy came today. General Motors announced it would idle the Fairfax plant until February, one of 14 plants closed down. For us, that means 2,640 employees who will not clock in for nearly two months.

Not passing a short-term aid package was reckless and puts 3 million workers and our entire fragile economy at risk.

We are now asking the President to take emergency action to protect the economy. It is within his power and indications are that he understands the gravity of a failing auto industry. The President should direct Secretary Paulson to use the Troubled Assets Relief Program or other means at his disposal to provide short-term funding to the auto industry, so that it can restructure and resurrect itself into the backbone of our nation's industrial base once again.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Bad News and the Big 3

Over a half-million jobs — that is how many the economy lost in November. That is the worst one-month drop in over 30 years.

This morning, it was also announced that our nation's unemployment rate is 6.7% — the highest in 15 years. Hundreds of thousands more families will have a very difficult holiday season this year on top of the millions already out of work.

These new numbers come on the heels of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the Treasury Department's implementation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

The GAO told Congress that the Treasury Department has no way to measure whether taxpayer funds invested in banks are being used in accordance with the purpose of the law - to increase lending. My committee has asked the Treasury repeatedly to track the impact of the taxpayer money. The Treasury has responded that it has no intention of doing so.

The GAO recommended that measures be developed to apply to how individual institutions are using their share of the $250 billion made available to them. In response the Treasury policy is to engage in "further discussions on general metrics for evaluating the overall success of the capital purchase program in addressing the purposes of the EESA."

So in the context of the very bad job losses last month and the refusal of Treasury to monitor the effectiveness of our last large taxpayer rescue package the Big 3 automakers came before our committee today to ask for $34 billion.

Here is what we know:
  1. Without assistance of some sort, one or more of the Big 3 will be gone.
  2. Locally we have 7,200 employees and thousands of auto retirees.
  3. There is no assurance that government investment will save the industry.

Before Thanksgiving the CEOs came to Congress in private planes with a request for $25 billion of taxpayer money but no plan. Today they drove to Washington in hybrids with a plan in-hand and asked for $34 billion. That is some serious inflation.

Ford appears to be in the best shape of the three and may well weather the storm with very little assistance. The other two are in very bad shape and frankly I am not sure what the Congress is going to do at this point. That is the difficult part.

We have their plans, their testimony and their answers to some very difficult questions. The hearing was good and frustrating. It certainly went better than the last hearing, but I feel like we have heard all we are going to hear. It was frustrating, for me, because we really haven't made much progress on what we will do next. We need a plan and we need to vote on the financial mechanics to help the industry.

Our committee will work with the Banking Committee in the Senate as well as leaders of both chambers to craft a bill that can be passed quickly. Waiting helps no one. The longer we wait the fewer cars are bought (no one wants to buy a car from a company that may go under, even if they can get the loan) and the worse the problem gets.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Two frustrating hearings

This was an interesting and frustrating week. The week began with some hope of getting explanations from Secretary Paulson and answers from the Big 3 auto executives. Neither promise was fulfilled completely.

Treasury Secretary Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair testified Tuesday morning in front of our Committee. Members, including me, were interested in hearing from this trio why, after expending half of the money allocated, more progress had not been made in loosening the credit markets.

We were also curious as to why some financial institutions are under the impression it is acceptable to use government-provided funds to pay dividends, continue excessive executive compensation and for acquiring other banks.

None of us expected that the Troubled Asset Relief Program would be a magic pill. We did not expect lenders to immediately start making loans again. However, we also did not expect and certainly did not intend for banks to be hoarding their government assistance or using it to further expansion schemes.

The concern we expressed, particularly to Secretary Paulson, was that it didn't seem unreasonable that financial institutions demonstrate SOME degree of responsibility to the American taxpayer whose investment in them was predicated on relieving the clogged credit markets.

I think that what we learned from the hearing is that we have to go back to work. If the financial institutions continue to behave irresponsibly, then we're going to redraft the Act to require them to act responsibly.

Additionally, we are frustrated that not near enough has been done to help keep homeowners in their homes. I think we made it clear that we believed that the FDIC Chairwoman, Shelia Bair, is on the right track with her proposed program to encourage refinancing of troubled mortgages by providing government guarantees. If we do not see movement toward her plan by the Treasury Secretary soon, I believe we will need to require it.

We saw a bit of the pressure we exerted this week paying off as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced this morning they would freeze all foreclosures until after the holidays as they work to renegotiate troubled loans.

Progress has been made. However, I think we left no doubt in the mind of the Secretary and Fed Chairman that we had expected a great deal more progress for $300 billion and that changes would be needed.

As for the Big 3 executives...

I would not have believed it had someone told me before hand the hearing would go as poorly as it did. From the moment these three arrived in Washington via their private airplanes it was all down hill.

I don't mean to be too flippant about this, but if you are going to ask the government for $25 billion of the taxpayers money, it is very helpful to have 1) an explanation for why that amount is necessary and 2) a plan for how the money will save the industry.
These gentlemen provided neither.

Here's an example of what I mean, demonstrated in a question I asked:

CLEAVER: Why $25 billion? I mean why not 26? Are we going to divide three into 25?

ROBERT NARDELLI (CEO of Chrysler): Chrysler is asking for $7 billion.

ALAN MULALLY (CEO of Ford): Sir, it would be the rest based on the market share.

CLEAVER: This is - I mean we're just spending $25 billion loosely. I mean this is loosey goosey, whatever's left, I'll take.They seem to just be picking numbers out of a hat with no real clue as to how much is actually required to right the ship.

As I said last week, the automakers and our District are intertwined and should they go under it would be a disaster for us locally. Nationally, we are talking about 3 million workers who depend on making cars for employment. But the bottom line is, as much as I understand the need, Congress cannot commit billions of taxpayer dollars without first knowing how the automakers intend to use it to keep from sinking and how they are going to re-tool their industry to make it more green and more competitive.

As a result of the hearing this week, we have asked to see plans detailing exactly how the automakers would spend these loans which are due by December 2nd. With the plans in hand, we will return to session and revisit these loan requests by December 8th. I think this is a very reasonable and responsible approach with so much taxpayer money at stake.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Some explaining to do

This week, I returned to Washington to participate in hearings examining the progress the Treasury is (or is not) making to restructure mortgages allowing people to stay in their homes. In a nutshell: they are not yet doing enough, despite a substantial influx in Treasury money to help homeowners.

Treasury Secretary Paulson committed money from the rescue package in order to make financial institutions more financially sound and allow them to begin lending again. Part of the understanding is that the outlay of federal funds would in turn encourage lenders to renegotiate troubled mortgages. Three hundred billion has been spent, and significant progress has yet to be made.

Needless to say, the Financial Services Committee and frankly the American people have a few questions for Secretary Paulson. Next Tuesday we will have an opportunity to ask him directly as Secretary Paulson, Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve and Sheila Bair, Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will all testify in front of my Committee.

At about the same time this week that we were questioning bankers about why we weren't seeing more progress in re-writing mortgages, Secretary Paulson made some news of his own. In a press conference he surprised those of us charged with overseeing the $700 billion rescue package by saying he had changed his mind about the need to buy up the toxic assets that have frozen the credit markets.

On Wednesday, Paulson said the Treasury would now use funds to put more capital into the banks rather than buying up bad mortgage assets through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). I mention the section title of the $700 billion package to emphasize the Congress' intent with the bill — namely to buy troubled assets.

Paulson said that he believes his new plan is a "more powerful and quicker way to deal with the problem."

"Seven hundred billion [dollars] wouldn't go far enough in my judgment. So you get much more leverage by putting capital into the banks. What we were looking to do was to stabilize the system and encourage banks to lend more. And the quickest and most powerful way to do that was with capital."

Now, I am not an economist. So the new Paulson Plan may very well be what is needed.
However, his failure to alert Congress of his shift in strategy does not inspire confidence in the American people. When embarking on a plan meant to build confidence, it would be helpful if the government was all singing from the same hymnal.

There is another problem with the shift in strategy that goes beyond whether it works or not. If, say, after Congress appropriated funds to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and rather than spending money on homes, the Secretary decided to buy airplanes — we would rightly take issue with that.

Secretary Paulson is right when he says the 509 page bill we passed gave him fairly wide latitude. But, the stated purpose of the rescue package is clear as day in the title — troubled assets.

As of this afternoon, the Treasury has yet to buy a single troubled asset with the $700 billion appropriated to do so. Not one.

Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke will have some explaining to do on Tuesday.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A New Day

This Tuesday, I spent the evening watching history with thousands of you at the Midland Theater downtown. I was struck not only by the joy of the crowd, but by the New Year's Eve-like atmosphere on the street. Cars honked, people yelled and high-fived total strangers.

Tuesday was a night of shared experience, one of those evenings we will tell younger generations about.I thought about my grandfather, Noah Albert Cleaver. He lived over a century and my twins were able to sit on his knee. He had seen women get the vote, two world wars, a depression, integration of the armed services, the rise of the civil rights movement, desegregation, seventeen presidents elected, and his grandson sworn in as mayor of Kansas City.

I am not sure he would have thought that his twin grandchildren would have had the chance to see a black President of the United States elected. Though, I know, he hoped and worked for that possibility.

Tuesday, we all took part in history.

I know many older black men and women were weeping as President-elect Obama took the stage to declare victory. It was impossible not to be moved regardless how you voted. Senator McCain was gracious in the moment and I believe the world again looked to America as the place where all things are possible.

Lines were wrapped around polling places Tuesday as we took part in our great American birthright. At poll after poll as I talked to those waiting in line, I was struck by the patience and resolve of our community to cast their vote. I have shaken hands at polling places many times in my life, and never have I seen such a jubilant and peaceful crowd. We were determined to do our part.

Since then, I've been asked many times what I thought about the election of the first black President. I think America voted once again for the nation they wanted rather than the nation they were. We have a history of choosing hope over fear.

We are not perfect, but we are as close as the world has gotten to the ideal. Tuesday the world remembered why they look to us to lead. Not because of our selection for President, but because as a nation in the middle of hardship we chose to be bold rather than cower.

And on that historic Tuesday night we reminded the world of another uniquely American quality. Since Washington decided to only serve two terms as President and John Adams was elected to succeed him, the will of the people has always led to a peaceful transition of powers. Two diametrically opposed parties can spend over a year on the battlefield of ideas and when the votes are cast and the decision is made one concedes and the other becomes President-elect. Rather than gun shots there are fireworks, and next year on January 20 at exactly noon, one party's President will walk out of the White House as the opposing party's nominee is sworn in --- a remarkably peaceful exchange.

When George Washington was sworn in as the first President he ended the oath with a simple prayer, "So help me God." Now that request is an official part of the oath of all federal offices, including the one you chose to return me to this week. Amazingly fitting.

Congress will return to session next week for what is known as a "lame duck" session. Historically not a lot is accomplished during this session, but this year we cannot afford to wait for January to make progress on righting the ship of state.

Thank you for your faith in me, it is my honor to continue to serve you and our community. I am humbled and grateful.