For years, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., waged a lonely crusade in the House to try to kill earmarks, those special provisions that lawmakers regularly slipped into spending bills to benefit their districts or political allies. Flake, a one-time Mormon missionary in Africa, disavowed earmarks for his own constituents, but like the famous bridge, his repeated efforts to get others to follow suit went nowhere.
That is, until now.
In the wake of a midterm election that demonstrated the strong influence of the Tea Party and anti-spending forces, spurning earmarks is now politically fashionable — with politicians as disparate as President Obama, House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky all aggressively endorsing a temporary moratorium on the measures.
Obama cited the now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska when calling for an end to the practice recently. “Earmarks like these represent a relatively small part of overall federal spending,” Obama said in a radio address. “But when it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact.” McConnell — an earmark devotee for many years — announced his change of heart in a floor speech last week after feeling the heat from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and other Tea Party allies. “Banning earmarks is another small but important, symbolic step we can take to show that we are serious, another step on the way to serious and sustained cuts in spending and to the debt,” he said.
“I have listened to my constituents,” McConnell said, while cautioning that Congress may be ceding power to the administration over how federal funds are spent. “Over the years, I have seen presidents of both parties seek to acquire total discretion over appropriations. And I have seen presidents of both parties waste more taxpayer dollars on meritless projects, commissions and programs than every congressional earmark put together,” he said. “So I am not wild about turning over more spending authority to the executive branch.”
But Flake, a true believer in his mission against what he considers wasteful pork barrel spending, betrays little doubt about the wisdom of putting an end to the earmark process — at least for a while. And after operating for years on the political fringes — sponsoring amendments to delete specific earmarks — Flake now has a good chance of winning an appointment to the House Appropriations Committee, which has been responsible for lacing spending bills with earmarks.
In the greater scheme of things, earmarks have accounted for a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Individual projects, like the $2 million spent to refurbish the statue of Vulcan that stood above steel town Birmingham, Ala., for year, or the $50,000 spent on a tattoo-removal program in San Luis Obispo, Calif., have drawn derisive remarks from critics. But earmarks overall have cost about $16 billion annually, or about one percent of the federal budget.
fact we’ve given up oversight over the other 98 percent of spending.”
Even if earmarks were wiped out, it would do little to reduce the $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit. And even if members of Congress can no longer dictate how that money is spent, those funds would remain in the budget, to be spent one way or another — the very argument McConnell was making.
But Flake insists that “Senator McConnell is just wrong” in asserting that the elimination of earmarks shifts too much authority to the administration. “The worst part about earmarks is not the money wasted; it’s the fact we’ve given up oversight over the other 98 percent of spending,” he said in an interview with The Fiscal Times.
Flake noted the massive Homeland Security appropriations bill traditionally carries few earmarks but still spends money in ways he considers suspect or irresponsible. One appropriations project Flake questioned was for street light synchronization in Apache Junction, a fast-growing community in his own district.
He also wants Congress to return to the process of reauthorizing federal programs on a regular basis to limit appropriators’ discretion in spending money on them. Congress must periodically review the work of federal agencies and departments and pass new legislation spelling out their responsibilities and mandates. But most existing federal programs have not been reauthorized in years.
“Authorization, appropriations and oversight, that’s the process we should have,” Flake said.
Flake, 47, a fifth-generation Arizonan, graduated with a degree in international studies from Brigham Young University and did missionary work in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He was elected to his first term in the House in 2000 and promised to “rock the boat” and serve no more than three two-year terms.
From the start, Flake promised never to seek special favors or earmarks from the Appropriations Committee, and he sponsored numerous amendments to delete specific earmarks — but almost all were overwhelmingly defeated. In 2004, he began naming an “Egregious Earmark of the Week.” He finally succeeded in June 2007, when he went after $129,000 sought by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree project, according to the Almanac of American Politics. House Democrats provided most of the votes to strike McHenry’s earmark.
because they’re the ones who want on the committee.”
Until now, he has operated as an outsider, taking pot shots at members of the House Appropriations Committee, but with no standing on the panel. Flake hopes to help lead the way on increased oversight by finally getting a seat on the Appropriations Committee, something he has sought since early 2008.
He has already talked about the importance of oversight with Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and Reps. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Jack Kingston, R-Ga. — all seeking the chairmanship of the committee when the GOP takes control in January.
Flake also said he’s convinced the Appropriations Committee membership will become more aggressive in cracking down on spending with the infusion of new members it is likely to get. “There are going to be some good fiscal conservatives because they’re the ones who want on the committee,” he said.
Even before the newcomers come aboard in January, House and Senate Republicans embraced a temporary moratorium on earmarks, with many rank and file vigorously endorsing that approach, while some veterans dissented.
Flake applauded McConnell’s change of heart on an earmark ban, but also said McConnell must find ways to make sure the moratorium is enforced. “Republicans will have a difficult time being taken seriously if some Republican senators are allowed to circumvent the ban,” he said in a statement.
Although he said he will abide by his Republican colleagues’ decision to ban earmarks in the coming Congress, Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said he remains “unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority to determine federal expenditures.”
When he sought an Appropriations seat in early 2008, Flake noted that by the end of 2007 “Republicans requested and received nearly as many pork barrel projects as the Democrats. It’s tough to argue that there is a real difference between the two parties on this issue.”
Flake agrees that banning earmarks is only the first big step by lawmakers worried about the mounting debt. “We’re not going to be able to balance the budget and reduce the debt by simply eliminating earmarks, but it’s a huge signal to taxpayers that Republicans are serious about getting the federal government back on solid fiscal ground,” he said.