WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Jeff Flake, a 44-year-old third-term Republican congressman from Mesa, Ariz., last Wednesday burnished his credentials as "Miss Uncongeniality" in the House of Representatives. He introduced 12 amendments to the Transportation-Treasury-HUD appropriations bill removing earmarks of individual House members, including two by chief appropriator Jerry Lewis. All of Flake's efforts failed.
That brought to 26 earmarks unsuccessfully proposed by Flake for removal from appropriations bills since May 24. There was no close vote and no serious debate. Republican and Democratic leaders alike voted to preserve earmarks. Ironically, the House Budget Committee on Wednesday approved a line-item veto enabling President Bush to eliminate earmarks.
Why would Republican leaders who vote for earmarks support the line-item veto? One explanation is that the presidential veto may lose on the floor Thursday. But even if it survives, would Bush risk antagonizing lawmakers who dispose of his spending requests? He could be caught up in the climate of intimidation causing House members to vote against Flake's amendments for fear their districts will be deprived of federal largesse. This is classic logrolling that started in the 19th century.
Flake last week asked why taxpayers nationwide should be levied $1.5 million for the William Faulkner Museum in Oxford, Miss., (affirmed in a voice vote) or $250,000 to turn the Strand Theater in Plattsburgh, N.Y., into a performing arts center (affirmed 366 to 61). Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, the Appropriations "cardinal" (subcommittee chairman), in floor debate voiced his committee's mantra: "We say that we know better than federal officials and bureaucrats ... where to spend money."
While Flake had dozens of earmarks he could challenge on the floor, he chose two submitted by Appropriations Committee Chairman Lewis: $500,000 for swimming pool renovations in Banning, Calif. (affirmed 365 to 61), and $500,000 for a Crafton Hills College athletic facility in Yucaipa, Calif. (affirmed 368 to 58).
On the day before these votes, Lewis was reported by Roll Call newspaper to have hired a Los Angeles white-collar criminal lawyer, Robert Bonner, to represent him in a federal investigation of his connection with a lobbying firm specializing in congressional earmarks. That did not inhibit Lewis from taking the House floor to browbeat Flake with the appropriators' theme song: "(Flake) seems to have much more confidence in bureaucrats downtown than he has in the members of the House."
On the day after these votes, reform Republicans in Congress were startled by a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, based on research by the Sunlight Foundation, that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert earned $2 million by the 2005 sale of land he purchased in 2004. Hastert last July earmarked $207 million as the first appropriation for the proposed Prairie Parkway, located 5.5 miles from the property purchased by the speaker.
Earmarks increasingly are the source of corruption and ethical transgressions on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Yet the cardinals defend the practice, which has grown exponentially during the 12-year Republican majority. They argue that their constituents want pork, not reform.
The authentic prevailing congressional attitude toward reform was expressed by a Democrat who often is less discreet than his colleagues. The Sun Gazette newspaper in Northern Virginia reported that Rep. Jim Moran told a party dinner June 9 in his district, "When I become (a House Appropriations subcommittee) chairman, I'm going to earmark the s--t out of it."
There are Republican lawmakers less enthusiastic about earmarks than Moran who vote against the Flake amendments to keep their districts from losing federal funding. Appropriators stalk the House, taking names of colleagues who dare disrupt logrolling. Every time, however, a coterie in the House votes against pork. Their ranks include conservative reformers Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Mike Pence of Indiana, John Shadegg of Arizona and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. They can kiss goodbye goodies for their districts.
At Charlie Palmer's restaurant last Wednesday, assembled Republican campaign contributors cheered as John Boehner was introduced as the majority leader who never has sponsored an earmark. Later that day, Boehner voted against each of Flake's attempted earmark removals. In the House, one conservative reformer commented to another seated beside him, "With this leadership, we never will get rid of earmarks."