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The Pork-as-Usual GOP

Jeff Flake
Jeff Flake (Jorge Rey - AP)

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, January 24, 2008

When House Republicans convene behind closed doors today at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., 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 earmark reformer Rep. Jeff Flake to a vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee. In fact, they almost surely will do neither.

Instead, during the retreat Republicans are likely to adopt some limitation on earmarks that will have no public impact and will exert 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 are unlikely to place Flake, an insistent reformer, in the midst of the pork-dispensing appropriators.

Republicans are staring into a 2008 election abyss, having lost credibility as upholders of lean government by sponsoring profligate pork-barrel spending during 12 years in the congressional majority. And they 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, is leading fellow appropriators against the moratorium. They are joined by the most seriously challenged Republican incumbents, who see political salvation in bringing funds home to their districts, 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 previously ran the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, 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 in closed forums such as the session at the Greenbrier.

Flake's most prominent competitor for Appropriations is Rep. Tom Cole, a major political figure in Oklahoma who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). A few sensitive Republicans worry about Cole solving the NRCC's fundraising woes by dispensing earmarks. But opposition stems mostly from the belief that Cole's NRCC chairmanship is enough for one congressman.

The most likely winner of the Appropriations derby will be Rep. Dave Reichert, a former sheriff of King County, Wash., who has not distinguished himself during three years in Congress and gets only a 60 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. His sole qualification appears to be that he is the most endangered Republican House member in 2008 and needs to bring home the bacon to Seattle.

As far as Republicans recovering their fiscal brand, the appropriators say earmark reform is strictly Washington inside baseball with no public support. They should follow Sen. John McCain on the presidential campaign trail, where he is cheered for promising to veto bills containing earmarked pork.

McCain as the party's leader is one possible new development for the earmarkers to ponder. Then there are possible new indictments tied to earmarks. In addition to Lewis, Alaska's two longtime purveyors of pork -- Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young -- are under federal investigation. Though Flake will probably be kept off the Appropriations Committee, he will not go away and will be joined this year by additional Republicans proposing the elimination of individual earmarks. Flake up to now has not tried to kill more than a dozen earmarks in any appropriations bill. This year, he promises to introduce "many, many more" than a dozen amendments per bill.

Ironically, the Appropriations vacancy was created by the appointment of Rep. Roger Wicker of Mississippi to the Senate. The Post reported last week that as an appropriator late last year, Wicker inserted a $6 million earmark for a defense firm that contributed to his campaign and was lobbied for by Wicker's former chief of staff. Roger Wicker is a poster child for an earmark moratorium.

¿ 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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