Capitol Hill 'pork' reformer faces uphill battle

Rep. Jeff Flake, a crusader against 'pork' spending, is being punished by GOP leadership, watchdog groups say.

After years of bashing congressional "pork" on the floor of the House – and losing on lopsided votes – Rep. Jeff Flake is seeing his signature issue become a party bandwagon. But he's not on it.

When the House Republican Steering Committee had to find someone to fill a vacancy on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, aka Pork Central, they chose a newcomer to reform, Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, over Representative Flake and several others.

"Of those candidates, 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 House Republican leader John Boehner in a statement announcing the appointment last week.

"From this point forward, a member's willingness to change and support dramatic change in the spending process will be grounds for reward, not punishment," he added.

But to Flake – and the public interest groups supporting him – it all whiffed of punishment, especially after the four-term lawmaker from Arizona was also bounced off his top committee assignment last month.

"I was told that I was taken off the Judiciary Committee because of 'bad behavior,' " said Flake in a phone interview. "I guess to be a team player you only challenge Democratic earmarks. I don't think that's right."

Flake launched his "Egregious Earmark of the Week" campaign in December 2004 and, with other conservatives, has led floor fights to challenge scores of earmarks. He has won only one – a bid to strike $129,000 for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree project, a Republican earmark, in June 2007.

This year, however, both parties have been talking up various earmark reforms in response to public ire over corruption and waste. Budget watchdog groups urged putting Flake on the spending committee as a signal that Republicans, who presided over a spike in earmarks during their 12 years in the majority, were serious about change.

"We want to support the minority's efforts for reform as much as possible, but when they pass up a golden opportunity for earmark reform, it doesn't make sense," says Keith Ashdown, principal investigator for Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks congressional earmarks.

A reformer on the inside could help bring public scrutiny to earmarking earlier in the process, say other watchdog groups. "Now, most members of Congress who are not on the Appropriations Committee don't find out about questionable projects until 24 hours after they come up in committee," says Ed Frank, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which opposes earmarking.

With Flake on the panel, watchdog groups "could have access to questionable requests months before the bill is put together," he added.

In reporting the Steering Committee's decision, Representative Boehner notes that the panel was impressed by Representative Bonner's "ability to work with other reform-minded colleagues to force change from within."

Flake says that he tried working from within, but it didn't work. "When I took the mike during a party caucus meeting, people started chanting, 'earmarks, earmarks,' even when I was talking about something else," he said.

But with John McCain, the Senate's leading porkbuster, as the likely GOP presidential nominee in 2008, Flake says that Republicans will either get out ahead of the anti-earmark campaign, or "be dragged kicking and screaming."

Only eight House members, all Republicans, did not secure any earmarks in spending bills for fiscal year 2008, including Flake and Boehner.

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