Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Fox in the Henhouse?

There's probably no House Republican more dedicated to opposing pork-barrel projects than Jeff Flake (R-AZ). He constantly offers amendments to appropriations legislation to strike wasteful projects -- and he constantly loses the battle by lopsided margins. His inability to win any meaningful support -- among either Republicans or Democrats -- is clear demonstration that when it comes to earmarking, Washington is the same as always.

And if it is the same as always, there's no way he can win a seat on the Appropriations Committee, is there?

“Wouldn’t it make sense to have at least one Republican member of the Appropriations Committee who doesn’t earmark?” Flake wrote.

Flake made the case that putting him on the spending panel could have a positive electoral impact for Republicans.

“You have often said that ‘we have to earn our majority back.’ I agree,” he wrote. “But I think we can all agree that earning our majority back is going to take more aggressive action on earmark reform than we took during the first session of the 110th Congress.”

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on Flake's behalf yesterday:

Now that they are back in the minority, however, these same GOP leaders say they want to reclaim their fiscal credentials. So Mr. Flake’s candidacy is a test of their sincerity. Currently each of the 29 Republicans on House Appropriations receives earmarks. In a letter to GOP leader John Boehner requesting the committee seat, Mr. Flake wrote, “Wouldn’t it make sense to have at least one Republican member of the committee who doesn’t earmark?”

Yes, it would, though this would amount to a cultural revolution of Maoist proportions. The unspoken Appropriations commandment is thou shall not speak ill of another man’s pork. Mr. Flake could be counted on to police the worst excesses and be the taxpayer’s advocate on one of Congress’s most powerful committees. This is why he’s a long shot to get the job. But if he doesn’t get it, we’ll know House Republicans still haven’t changed their ways from the Tom DeLay-Bridge to Nowhere era.

If Mr. Flake were to win a seat on the Committee and continue to oppose earmarks in the same way he has on the floor, it would probably be a disaster. He would propose scads of amendments, constantly lose them, and quickly be marginalized. He would descend to Ron Paul status -- lonely and irrelevant. Appropriations business would continue as usual and he would be ignored by the media in much the same way he is now.

If he and House Republican leaders could reach some sort of compromise however, his presence on the committee could be a win for him, for House Republicans, and for fiscal responsibility. Mr. Flake could promise not to pursue every earmark -- or even every bad earmark (there are too many). Rather, if he agreed to serve as a watchdog -- identifying egregious and wasteful earmarks, and getting cooperation from his Republican colleagues on the committee to oppose them -- it could make a real difference. Appropriators would grow wary of him, and would try to avoid sponsoring earmarks that earn a place on his 'hit list.' After all, who wants to become known for sponsoring a 'bridge to nowhere,' especially if you know that you'll actually be forced to fight publicly for it?

This would require an act of political bravery by the House leadership, but it might be a political winner.

Update: Andrew Roth has printed the text of Flake's letter to Boehner.

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