Longtime anti-earmarks crusader Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has received the support of Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner to be named to the powerful House Appropriations Committee next year. Boehner’s blessing all but guarantees that Flake will join a committee upon which he’s heaped criticism for years. Flake told a gaggle of conservative bloggers at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday that appropriators’ reputation for pork barrel spending and chummy deal making makes the committee a prime target for fiscal hawks. “I thought [the committee] would be an appropriate place for a fiscal conservative” to make an impact, he said.
Flake has a lengthy track record as an opponent of earmarks, which Congressional Republicans voted to ban within their House and Senate caucuses in November. The practice of earmarking has always been “the gateway drug to higher overall spending,” Flake explained. “It’s used to leverage higher spending everywhere.” He dismissed arguments from prominent appropriators that earmarking only accounts for a small fraction of overall federal spending, and is therefore a relative irrelevancy. “We waste considerable time, effort, and resources on earmarks, which distracts from sound oversight of the executive and the other 98 percent of federal spending,” Flake said.
If he is, in fact, named to the Appropriations Committee, one of Flake’s top priorities will be puncturing the body’s prevailing back-scratching culture. “It’s been a clubby environment over there forever,” he said, suggesting that some of its members are more concerned with “interest protection” than anything else. “The old cliche applies: There are Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators,” Flake joked. “But ideally, this committee should be the committee that says ‘no.’” In Flake’s mind, serving on Appropriations should be perceived more as a chore than a perk. In that sense, “[I]t should be like the Ethics Committee” – where members perform an unpleasant, but essential task.
In order to augment his ability to recruit fellow strong conservatives to join the committee, which he admits has been a “tough sell,” Flake has proposed the creation of an investigatory Appropriations Subcommittee. He expressed hope that incoming committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) will demonstrate his commitment to greater oversight and transparency by backing his idea. Boehner has already lent his support to the plan. Not only would adding an investigation arm to the committee help attract conservative lawmakers interested in reforming the way Congress does business, Flake argued, it would also help unearth evidence of waste and inefficiency that would allow House Republicans to justify forthcoming and necessary “very deep cuts to some popular programs.”
Flake is no stranger to spotlighting profligate federal spending. For years, he’s spearheaded an effort to blast out regular emails pointing to the “most egregious earmarks of the week.” With the GOP’s newly adopted earmarks moratorium, Flake is “happily retiring” the feature and pivoting to weekly exposes of wasteful executive grants. “Just because earmarks will be gone, doesn’t mean that bad spending is gone,” he warned.
In the lead up to their massive Election Day victories, Republican leaders have sought to assure voters that they’ve “learned their lesson” about abandoning fiscal responsibility. Does Flake view their decision to endorse him for a seat on a committee he’s battled for years as evidence that chastened GOP leaders have, indeed, internalized voters’ message? “I never thought I’d see this sort of support from certain people,” Flake said – referencing the earmarks ban, of which he was a lonely champion throughout much of the Bush Administration. He also expressed gratitude and optimism about his apparent elevation to the committee’s ranks. Nonetheless, he cautioned, “We [Republicans] are always on probation. On larger spending cuts and entitlement reforms, the jury is still out.”
Flake said the bottom-line metric for success is Republicans’ modest plan to roll back non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels. (Flake also signaled an openness to looking at certain defense spending cuts). “If we can’t hit the target we’ve established, people will have every right to question our seriousness.” He said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen and heard so far from incoming GOP freshmen, many of whom have little or no legislative experience. “The experience issue pales in comparison to the question of political courage; someone’s willingness to stand up on principle, and even stand up to their own party, if necessary,” he said of his soon-to-be colleagues.