Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When House Republicans convene behind closed doors today (Thursday) at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V., they have a chance to make two bold moves to restore their reputation for fiscal responsibility. First, they could declare a one-year moratorium on Republican congressional earmarks. Second, they could name anti-earmark reformer Rep. Jeff Flake to a vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee. In fact, almost surely they will do neither.

Instead, the retreat is likely to adopt some limitation on earmarks with no public impact and exerting no pressure on the earmark-happy Democratic majority. Consideration of Flake's candidacy for Appropriations was postponed until after this week's earmark debate at the Greenbrier. But content with a half-measure on earmarks, the House Republicans will not place insistent reformer Flake in the midst of the pork-dispensing appropriators.

Staring into a 2008 election abyss, Republicans lost credibility as upholders of lean government by sponsoring profligate pork barrel spending during 12 years in the congressional majority and have not reformed since the 2006 Democratic takeover. The message out of West Virginia this week predictably will be business as usual.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Republican, leads fellow appropriators against the moratorium. They are joined by the most seriously challenged Republican incumbents, who see political salvation in bringing home the bacon to their districts, and principles be damned.

If the moratorium were adopted, it would make sense to put Flake on the Appropriations Committee to harass its irascible, earmark-loving Democratic chairman, Rep. David Obey, without offending GOP appropriators. But if Republicans have not foresworn pork, Flake as an appropriator would be on a collision course with Lewis. Under federal investigation for earmarks, Lewis has lost his customary California cool on the floor when Flake has challenged his pork projects.

Flake, a four-term congressman from Arizona who ran the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix before his election, is usually a dependable party man and is personally well liked. But the Republican Party, preferring to operate as a secretive private corporation, deplores Flake for discussing the GOP affinity for pork in public instead of closed forums such as this week's session at the Greenbrier.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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