John Boehner said it best Tuesday night: “This is not a time for celebration. . . . This is a time to roll up our sleeves.” There is a lot of work to be done, and the work will require a high degree of political savvy and a lot of labor if the GOP wants to stop the spending train that Obama, Reid, and Pelosi allowed to run out of control. Spending growth under the aforementioned triumvirate is on pace to exceed 11 percent per year — a modern record. We need to cut that number back, not to the 6.5 percent of the Bush years, but at least to the 4 percent of the Clinton-Gingrich era.
For that kind of work, Boehner is going to need a few fearless stalwarts to clean up the House Appropriations Committee, which notorious influence-peddler Jack Abramoff once astutely dubbed “the Favor Factory.” There is no one better suited to this task than five-term Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. The Approps Committee (as House insiders call it) has become a grazing ground for congressional wildebeests of both parties; they’re happy to go along to get along as long as everyone is getting a nice fat cut for his or her district. If the GOP is going to make good on its promise to trim $100 billion plus from the discretionary side of the ledger, this committee needs to go from grazing ground to killing field. Flake is the kind of predator who could get the job done.
Over the course of his ten years in the House, Flake has taken on the thankless task of educating himself on arcane procedural ways to challenge egregious spending, and used his knowledge to fight the free-spending ways of the DeLay-era Republican majority. But it is very difficult to trim appropriations bills at the margins once they make it to the House floor. Flake has learned the hard way: Most of his challenges to congressional earmarks, even obscene earmarks, have lost out to the leadership’s deference to the Approps Comittee. If Flake had a seat on the committee, however, he could stop a lot of this mischief before it got started.
If Boehner sells the idea of putting Flake on the Approps Committee as his own, then he takes credit for showing a serious commitment to spending restraint on Day One. The move would immediately silence those who are telling the Tea Party, in condescending tones, that the movement has simply restored the spendthrift Republicans who held power from 2002 to 2006. But there are two more moves Boehner could make to give Flake some help on Approps and make it more likely that the committee will be an ally on spending reduction, rather than the enemy it has been in the past. One of those moves is obvious. The other is very counterintuitive.
The obvious one is to give Flake some excellent allies on the committee. Names such as Jeb Hensarling, Scott Garrett, and John Campbell spring readily to mind. Those men all have seats and seniority on the House Financial Services Committee, from which it will be hard to lure them away. But there is a strong case to be made that at least one of them would be doing the party more good on Approps. An alternative to picking an established cutter would be combing the large crop of freshmen lawmakers for committed conservatives and stacking the committee with them. Either way, Flake will need some help.
The counterintuitive idea is this: Grant California Republican Jerry Lewis a waiver allowing him to resume his chairmanship of the committee. Lewis served as Approps chairman from 2005 to 2007. Those who were covering these issues at that time will remember that he did not exactly cover himself in glory. Lewis fought budget reforms that would have subjected appropriations bills to greater scrutiny. He sought to prevent rank-and-file members from gaining more power to challenge excessive spending. But he has changed his tune since then, writing in a recent op-ed for Politico that Republicans should stick by their earmark ban.
Lewis did this in part because he needs a special waiver to get around the term limits that would otherwise prevent him from resuming his chairmanship, and he knows the tune he needs to sing in order to get that waiver. But Republicans should grant him the benefit of taking him at his word and holding him to it. Besides, the alternative to the devil we know — Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, who would be the next in line — is an avowed porker. Further, the Republican leadership should take into account the fact that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is also from Kentucky, and is not himself a stalwart on spending. If the spending bills coming from the House are being written by a fellow Kentuckian, will McConnell have the resolve to fight the ones that are unacceptable to conservatives?
If Republicans really want to get spending under control, they are going to have to go way beyond earmarks. While earmarks serve as a destructive hypnotic that causes Republicans to forget their commitment to smaller government, they never represented a very large share of government spending. But as a member of the Approps Committee, Flake can do more than just enforce the Republican ban on earmarks. He can provide real oversight on spending bills that are just as often packed with non-earmarked pork, such as Homeland Security allocations that use warped regional formulas to grant rural areas as much per capita protection from terrorist attacks as heavily populated cities. Real spending reform goes way beyond the Approps Committee — but it starts there. Flake for Appropriations is a great way for Boehner to begin the difficult work that lies ahead.