Kill earmarks! So said Arizona Republican Jeff Flake in an op-ed on Friday in the Washington Post. Flake, a fiscal conservative with a sterling no-earmark record, has been floated as a possible addition to the House Appropriations Committee. For a rising star like Flake—and with earmark reform the meme of the moment for congressional Republicans—it was only a matter of time 'til he weighed in on the debate.
Critics of earmark reform rally around the fact that they constitute a paltry 2 percent of government spending. But as earmarks have spiked in number and expense over the past two decades, Flake says, the commensurate quality of congressional oversight by the House Appropriations Committee has slipped precipitously. The result: Congress has given up its oversight of the remaining 98 percent.
Flake attacks Sen. Mitch McConnell's contention that an earmark ban cedes spending power to the president. (Despite initial resistance, McConnell endorsed Sen. Jim Demint's proposed earmark moratorium Monday afternoon.) Giving up earmarks doesn’t hand power to the White House, he argues. Instead, it's Congress' reliance on earmarks that has led lawmakers to turn a blind eye to the executive branch's spending excesses.
"It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: don’t hassle us about our 2 percent," he writes, "and we'll offer only token interference with your 98 percent. Such a poor trade has not been made since the days of Esau." Flake's suggestion is that, in Washington, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue excel at the practice of gluttonous spending. One end feeds and, in fact, enables the other.
Public revulsion to wasteful projects, he argues, is reason enough to invoke a ban. The "most compelling reason," he says, is that it will balance the relationship between Congress and the executive branch.
"Without the earmark distraction," he argues, "Congress can return to the deliberative process of authorization, appropriation, and oversight, thus reining in spending abuses of the administration rather than simply piling on with spending abuses of our own."
Ranking member Jerry Lewis certainly seems convinced of Flake's fiscal bonafides: the California Republican has endorsed Flake in his bid to be named to the committee. Lewis is term-limited from being named chairman, and is seeking a waiver. He's also a notorious porker. Some see his support for Flake as an attempt to win over Republicans skeptical of his record on earmarks.
There's no telling how realistic Flake's orthodox vision truly is. But thanks to the DeMint's proposed moratorium, the tea party freshmen, and longtime earmark critics like Flake, the push for earmark austerity is getting a major shot in the arm.