Movers and Shakers: Rep. Flake Vows to Fight Congressional 'Favor Factory'

Editor's note: The following is the latest installment in "Movers and Shakers: Republican Leadership in the 112th Congress." The series looks at some of the newly prominent House Republicans who will decide GOP and legislative and policy priorities in the next Congress. 

Congressional porkers, beware.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who for years has campaigned against congressional earmarks, will have a seat next session on the House Appropriations Committee -- the infamous panel that has earned a reputation as a factory for pork-barrel spending.

Flake's Republican colleagues, much to his delight, have pledged to ban earmarks in the next Congress. But with reports already surfacing about the myriad ways lawmakers will be able to squirm around that promise, Flake is vowing to use his new Appropriations perch to ensure fidelity to the anti-earmark oath and, from there, "do serious oversight on the other 99 percent of the budget."

Flake, who is dropping his other committee positions to concentrate exclusively on his new assignment, told he plans to target grant programs and other alleged excesses in a bid to pare down the budget. He said the panel he's joining has a reputation as a "favor factory," and that needs to change.

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"There's no way you'll stamp out every effort by legislators to curry favor with their constituents," Flake said. "But having the earmark ban certainly marginalizes these efforts, and that's good. But we need to follow through."

An earmark is created when a member of Congress designates money in the federal budget for a particular project, usually in his or her home state or district. Though the earmark does not represent new money in the budget -- rather, it tags existing funds for a specific purpose -- Flake said he hopes the ban will in turn motivate lawmakers to approve smaller budgets in the first place.

Following through on the ban will mean shooting down blatant earmarks but also drawing attention to lawmakers' requests that occur outside the appropriations process. Flake said they could try what is known as lettermarking or phonemarking -- where they write or call a friendly contact in a federal agency to request funding for a pet project.

And even if they don't, the congressman plans to spotlight wasteful spending items of any kind on a weekly basis, something he currently does with earmarks he finds distasteful. He said he'll start with some of the goodies included in the $858 billion tax-cut extension package passed and signed during the lame-duck session.

"We're obviously going to go in and have to undo some of the spending we just approved," he said, particularly calling out an extension of an ethanol tax credit. "If we can't cut programs like that, then we are in a world of hurt."

The pledge to cut up the bipartisan tax package is just one example of where Flake could end up grating against his congressional superiors. Another is Flake's ambition to create and lead an investigative subcommittee tasked with probing potential programs to cut. He acknowledged that the new chairman has been "cool" to that idea.

But perhaps House Speaker-designate John Boehner, who endorsed Flake for the Appropriations spot, saw him as a potent foil to senior members like incoming Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., renowned for their pork-barrel prowess.

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, Rogers signed on to $98 million worth of earmarks in 2010. The same group reported that Flake endorsed none. Rogers has since pledged to go cold turkey, and Flake said he'll take him "at his word."

"He was an avid earmarker before, but he's found religion," Flake said.

Flake said he'll be coordinating with taxpayer watchdog groups like CAGW next year to keep an eye on anybody who runs afoul of the push toward fiscal cutbacks. If they slip, he's got a simple strategy: "Publicize it, and hopefully ridicule it."