Backtracking on Earmark Reform

Robert Bluey

2/17/2008 12:00:00 AM - Robert Bluey

Just when it appeared House Republicans had turned the corner on earmark reform, party leaders did the unthinkable. They picked pork-loving Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) for the vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee, bypassing conservatives such as Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.). In doing so, the Republicans missed a golden opportunity to show they were committed to real reform.

Bonner may talk a good game when it comes to earmark reform. His record, however, is abysmal. The three-term Republican scored just 2% on the Club for Growth’s 2007 RePORK Card, meaning he voted for just one of the 50 anti-pork amendments offered by conservatives. That’s the same score as liberal Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Bill Jefferson (D-La.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.). Musgrave, meanwhile, notched a score of 94%. And Flake not only supported all 50 amendments, he introduced many of them.

Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips called the appointment “a huge missed opportunity for true earmark reform and for the Republican Party.” Phillips acknowledged that it was always possible for Bonner to “see the light and change [his] past habits,” but history usually serves as a pretty good guide to the future -- particularly in Washington.

Another taxpayer watchdog, FreedomWorks, organized a campaign called “Make It Flake” to support the Arizona Republican. Following the news of Bonner’s selection, FreedomWorks’ Chris Kinnan discovered this disturbing entry on Bonner’s congressional Web site:

“The direct appropriation is very difficult to obtain as funding is extremely limited. However, it is not impossible, and I am proud of our accomplishments in steering funds through this method to many worthy south Alabama projects.”

Bonner’s long history of securing pork for his district -- as well as voting for egregious earmarks on the House floor -- has left groups like FreedomWorks skeptical. The group’s chairman, Dick Armey, said Bonner should pledge to swear off all earmarks this year if he’s serious about cleaning up the favor factory.

Without such a pledge, Bonner’s recent Johnny-come-lately tough talk on earmarks would continue to stand in stark contrast to both his record and his past rhetoric. Of course, that didn’t stop some members of the Republican leadership team from trying to spin this as a victory for earmark reformers.

“Jo Bonner was chosen because he symbolizes the changing perspective in the House Republican ranks on the role of earmarks, and the emerging consensus among Republicans on the need to fundamentally change Washington’s broken spending process,” said Minority Leader John Boehner. Though he personally has never sought an earmark, Boehner is struggling to convince many of his GOP colleagues to kick the habit.

Flake demonstrated his commitment to spending reform by taking tough votes year after year. In passing him over, it’s obvious that the Steering Committee calculated Bonner’s convenient change in rhetoric would be enough to pacify taxpayers. If the Steering Committee wasn’t ready for Flake, there was an obvious next-best choice available: Musgrave. Conservatives admire her ongoing commitment to reform. They find it hard to swallow the Steering Committee’s bypassing two “tried and true” fiscal hawks in favor of the much more suspect Bonner.

To make matters worse, Boehner promised to support Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) for the Appropriations Committee in January when at least six seats will be vacant due to retirements. Cole was considered a favorite for the vacancy up until last week when he withdrew from consideration, leaving Reps. Henry Brown (S.C.), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Bonner, Flake and Musgrave.

Boehner’s decision to embrace Cole yet remain silent about the other candidates perplexed earmark opponents. With six vacancies on Appropriations next year, there is hope that a committed earmark warrior like Flake stands a chance to make a difference where it counts.

Conservatives must take this opportunity seriously. Boehner should go on the record and extend to Flake and Musgrave the same promise of support he gave to Cole. That would certainly send a strong message that the days are numbered for the congressional favor factory. It might even undo some of the damage caused by Bonner’s appointment.