Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) has been a thorn in the side of congressional appropriators — both Democratic and Republican — for years. That this “anti-earmark crusader” has been recommended for a seat on the House Appropriations Committee seems to be a clear indication that Republicans are listening to the American public’s concerns over wasteful spending by Washington. “I don’t see how you can view it any other way,” Flake tells National Review Online. “People expect us to go in and cut.”
The same can hardly be said, however, about Rep. Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), tapped to be the committee’s next chairman. Fiscal conservatives, Tea Party activists, and others who are thrilled with Flake’s inclusion have expressed varying degrees of outrage over the selection as chief appropriator of Rogers, whose notorious penchant for pet projects has earned him the nickname “Prince of Pork.” In the past two years alone, Rogers has pushed through 136 earmarks worth $257 million, including tens of millions to his hometown of Somerset, Ky., known locally as “Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood,” where you’ll find Hal Rogers Parkway (formerly Daniel Boone Parkway).
This pork-laden record notwithstanding, the 15-term congressman has been saying all the right things of late. Rogers has embraced House Republicans’ ban on earmarks for the 112th Congress and has vowed to uphold their pledge to cut $100 billion in non-defense discretionary spending. He has promised to be “a strong voice in Congress for fiscal responsibility.”
Flake says (with all the sincerity he can muster) that he hopes the change of heart is genuine. He points out that all the candidates being considered for the chairmanship “have a record they want to run away from.” Rep. Jerry Lewis (R., Calif.), the current ranking member on Appropriations, who had been seeking a term-limit waiver to remain in the top post, is an even more prolific earmarker than Rogers. Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.) has a slightly more favorable record, but he was a long shot at best.
“The culture on appropriations has been for the last couple of decades that this is a ‘Favor Factory,’” Flake says, using a term coined by the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “So by and large the only people who have sought a seat have been those who want to give out the goodies.” Anti-pork activists like him (to the extent that they existed) were never considered for a seat on the committee. Now that he’s a member, Flake hopes to inspire a new nickname: “the Cutting Committee.”
Flake argues that the GOP’s lack of desirable candidates for chairman is indicative not only of how corrupting the appropriations process has become, but also of why Republicans were rejected at the polls in 2006 and 2008. In other words, Republicans started spending like Democrats. “It doesn’t say much good about us as a party,” he says. “The key now is to turn and go in the other direction.”
One of Flake’s primary goals is to shine a light on the “notoriously opaque” appropriations process. After years of fighting runaway spending as an outsider, he’s all too familiar with the frustrating procedural minutiae that often prevent other members of Congress, let alone the American public, from knowing exactly how funding is allocated. “It’s like pulling teeth,” he says. “From what I’m told, it’s difficult even for members on the committee to know what’s going on.”
To that end, Flake envisions a role for himself as the Darrell Issa of appropriations. He wants to establish, and lead, a new subcommittee that would focus exclusively on oversight. He believes the new body would allow spending hawks like him to have a greater and more direct influence on the process. As it stands, Flake is concerned that too few fiscal conservatives will end up on the committee. He would have loved to have like-minded colleagues like Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas), Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), and Mike Pence (R., Ind.) join him on the committee — each has declined — but he is pleased to see freshman Rep. Tom Graves (R., Ga.) seeking a spot.
Flake could use the support. Those predicting a tumultuous working relationship between Flake and the new chairman were swiftly validated on Wednesday, when Rogers appeared to reject outright the idea of a separate oversight body. He told reporters: “If we did that, the twelve other subcommittees may not vigorously do their oversight, which they’re better prepared to do because they deal with these agencies every single day.”
Flake insists the issue is still under discussion. “We’re talking about it,” he says. “I don’t want to be premature.”
Leslie Paige, vice president of Citizens against Government Waste, says that if Republicans really understood what happened in November, they’d support Flake’s idea. Either way, just having Flake on the Appropriations Committee is “a huge step forward for taxpayers.” She’s prepared to live with a recovering porker like Rogers as chairman, so long as strict rules are put in place and followed. “It’s what they do from here on out that’s going to make the difference,” she says.
Still, the question seems to be not if, but how soon and to what extent, Flake and Rogers will clash on the committee. In particular, Homeland Security spending is likely to be an area of contention. Rogers currently serves as ranking member of the subcommittee for Homeland Security, which Flake calls a “treasure trove” of wasteful spending — “billions every year” equipping small rural towns with expensive anti-terror technology. Flake recalls challenging a number of Rogers’s Homeland Security earmarks in the past. “I hope we’ve turned a corner,” he says. With earmarks (one hopes) no longer a distraction, Flake plans to target the myriad federal grants and feckless agencies that eat up taxpayer dollars.
While Flake acknowledges a general understanding within the caucus that the appropriations process needs to change, he says support for his proposed reforms is far from unanimous. “Some of us are a little more energetic than others in that regard,” he says. Flake will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to shake things up — for example, by implementing House Speaker-designate John Boehner’s proposal to break up the twelve annual spending packages into separate, smaller pieces, making them easier for members to vote against. He hopes the incoming crop of freshman Republicans can help rally support for his cause.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been using Rogers’s appointment in an attempt to drive a wedge between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans. An aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) sent out a release titled “House GOP Flunks First Test by Backing Pork Prince,” highlighting conservative opposition to Rogers. But it’s fair to say that Democrats, who haven’t exactly been clamoring for appropriations oversight, let alone an earmarks moratorium, are probably far happier with Hal Rogers as chairman than they would be with someone like Jeff Flake, who says he would relish the opportunity to lead the committee someday. “You come here to Congress to have influence, and that’s certainly an influence I’d like to have,” he says. “If I told you I didn’t want to be chairman I’d be lying.”
And if any conservatives say they aren’t happy to hear that, they’re lying too.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.