Rep. Jeff Flake, the House of Representatives’ most aggressive and effective warrior in the fight against pork-barrel earmarks and other wasteful spending, is campaigning to march on the inner circle of spending hell — the Appropriations Committee. With Rep. Roger Wicker’s appointment to the U.S. Senate there is now a vacant slot on the powerful panel. House Republican leader John Boehner and the House Republican Steering Committee face a stark choice between business-as-usual stagnation and genuine pro-taxpayer change.
It is often said, and largely true, that Washington has three political parties — the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Appropriators. Appropriators write the bills that fund the government, an awesome power that has a tendency to distort perspective. With billions of taxpayer dollars at their disposal, appropriators easily can lose touch with their core ideals. Both Democrats and Republicans succumb, joining a third column that is focused on spending and advancing narrow interests without regard for America’s future.
The most egregious example of this phenomenon has been pork-barrel earmarks, the practice of requiring federal agencies to fund pet projects that quite often have been denied funding through normal merit-based competitive bidding and other formula-driven processes. Outrage over earmarks reached a boiling point in 2005 when Republicans, then in power, took well-deserved blame for the problem. This is a big reason why they are no longer the majority party.
Unfortunately, the power shift in Washington has brought little or no progress on this issue; earmarks under Democrats have notched the second highest total in history.
The earmark problem is part and parcel of the overall crisis of runaway federal spending. This is clearly not a Democrat or Republican issue. Rather, it is a congressional dilemma, with appropriators taking the lead. While most members of Congress — with the exception of Flake, Boehner, and a handful of others — request and receive earmarks, it is the appropriators who decide which pork projects will be funded and at what levels. It is also the appropriators who, naturally, see fit to award themselves the lion’s share of the pork.
Insulated from public scrutiny, appropriators dole out taxpayer dollars like candy, seeking both political and personal advantage. Before appropriation bills reach the House floor there is a mad rush by fiscal watchdog groups to uncover just where taxpayer dollars are being spent and to challenge the most egregious new earmarks. Flake and his staff are part of this watchdog process, but taxpayers would be much better served if Jeff Flake could fight earmarks from the inside.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Flake could view earmark requests right when they’re filed. Instead of scrambling for days or even hours to root out wasteful spending, Flake, his staff, and his allies would have weeks or months in which to shame the sponsors of the most outrageous and unworthy earmarks. The result would be that many earmarks would not even be requested.
Putting Flake on Appropriations is a no-brainer for fiscal discipline. But will the Republican Steering Committee, charged with making the decision, adopt the perspective of fiscal discipline, which is the perspective of the taxpayers?
In the aftermath of the 2006 election, John Boehner, who has five votes on the Steering Committee, made clear that the Republican party had lost its fiscal compass and that he would work to return it. Earmark reform is a necessary part of that effort. If the Steering Committee goes with Flake, it would signal an end to business as usual for both the Republican and Appropriator parties.
It would also show voters that the lesson of the 2006 election has been learned, a boon perhaps for Republican hopes in 2008.