World War I Memorial deserves more respect from Congress - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

World War I Memorial deserves more respect from Congress

Men of US 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918. (Public Domain)

A glaring gap in House ethics rules allows members to quietly use the legislative process to support institutions they maintain personal ties to.

The House recently approved language officially designating two national World War I memorials, one in Washington, DC, the other in Kansas City, Mo. The memorials are probably long overdue, considering the capital city contains monuments to major 20th Century conflicts from World War II to Korea and Vietnam.

But these possible national shrines aren’t being dedicated in a way that ought to make patriots proud in this centennial year of the start of the war.

The reason: a representative with a personal non-legislative investment in one of the memorials stealthily added the provision as a non-germane (to use the technical term for irrelevant) provision to a must-pass bill. The House approved the memorials as one of about 127 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act voted on en bloc without debate. Representatives didn’t get a chance to examine the measure and most of them probably didn’t even know about it, let alone the conflict of interest involved.

The member who sponsored it, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), had been trying for six years to get the national memorials named. He has thus far not succeeded in repeated attempts to get Congress to approve it.  But the museum that owns the Kansas City memorial means more to Cleaver than just any institution in his district.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (Official portrait)

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (Official portrait)

Since 2010, Cleaver has been serving on the the Board of Trustees of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. His proviso would officially designate the facility as the “National World War I Museum and Memorial.” The memorial, which sits atop the museum, would get special prestige as a national memorial, though it is not owned or operated by the federal government.  (Previous museum officials said they hoped the designation would make the monument eligible for federal maintenance, though the National Park Service says it would not.)

In his public statements advocating the legislation, Cleaver does not mention his ties to the museum. Both Cleaver’s congressional office and his reelection campaign have loudly trumpeted his role in getting the measure through the House.

A press release from his House office begins “Moments ago, the House of Representatives passed unanimously by voice vote Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, designating the Liberty Memorial of Kansas City at America’s National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, as the “National World War I Museum and Memorial.” (He neglects to mention that it was not voted on separately, but as part of a package.)

Nothing in the House Ethics Manual prohibits such behavior, but as the saying goes, sometimes the problem doesn’t involve what is illegal; but what is legal. Senate rules expressly forbid such a maneuver, however. The Senate Code of Official Conduct states that “Senators that serve on boards should refrain from any official action advocating any proposal of particular benefit to the organization, because such activities could create an appearance of a conflict of interest.” The code applies to “uncompensated positions” and includes non-profits.

Cleaver wanted to sneak the provision into must-pass legislation rather than subject it to public hearings for several reasons. The issue spurs more controversy than first glance would indicate – not because anybody opposes honoring World War I veterans. As a standalone bill, Cleaver’s World War I Memorial Act of 2014 was referred to two House committees that could hear opposing views; or delayed, amended or blocked the legislation. Cleaver made these concerns irrelevant.

The controversy: the bill also calls for turning Pershing Park in Washington into another National World War I Memorial. The World War I Memorial Foundation objects, saying placing such a monument  in a park with an ice rink just east of the White House South Lawn shortchanges the vets – who deserve the same placement on the National Mall as the other 20th Century war memorials.

The foundation would rather see a new memorial on the Mall or  to“duel name” as a national monument the existing District of Columbia War Memorial on the Mall. The builders of that monument specifically meant to honor DC residents who served in the First Great War. But many District residents understandably feel that rebranding the gazebo would demean the sacrifice made by local citizens. And many people justifiably think that the Mall is already too crowded with structures and new memorials should go elsewhere.

These issues deserve more public airing. And in an era when Congress has supposedly removed earmarks, the House needs to update its ethics rules so members don’t sponsor provisions that specifically benefit private outfits that they direct or manage.

 

 


About the author

Charles Pekow

Charles Pekow is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered everything from the environment to education to defense contracting and everything in between. A Bethesda resident, he has written for many periodicals, including the Washington Post. Baltimore Magazine, Maryland Life and the Washington Monthly. He has won many journalism honors, including the National Press Club Award and Washington Writing Prize. He is also a fitness freak who can be found riding his bicycle most weekends, weather permitting. Contact the author.
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