Jeff Flake Wants to End Runaway Spending

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," June 25, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Of all the problems facing congressional Republicans this November, voter frustration with runaway spending is one of the biggest. Since taking control of Congress in 1994 the number of earmarks often referred to as pork barrel projects has more than tripled.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, a leading support every of earmark reform, and asked him how big a problem that was for his party.


REP. JEFF FLAKE, R-ARIZ.: Politically it is a huge problem. We have always sold ourselves as a party of limited government. And it is very difficult to be perceived as that when you are earmarking bills like this. Bridge to nowhere. Swimming pools in California. It is just crazy.

GIGOT: Let me read you a quote from one of your colleagues, Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania defending earmarks. He said recently, "I don't think I was elected to come here and just bow down to the White House and Office of Management and Budget when it comes to spending priorities,” unquote.

Now why shouldn't Curt Weldon be able to pass out spending for his district? Isn't that what his voters expect?

FLAKE: Well, not this kind of spending. What these earmarks usually are, are items in the HUD bill, for example, or in transportation treasury. They are for swimming pools. They are for things that really we shouldn't be doing.

If you accept the premise that we ought to be spending all of this money, then you might be able to make a better case that it ought to be congressionally directed — and not by the administration. But conservatives believe that a lot of this money simply shouldn't be spent.

I mean should we be spending money building a swimming pool in Banning, California? If you accept that we should, then the question is, who should do it? The conservatives have always believed that that's something that's best left to local governments. That is not something the federal government ought to be involved in.

GIGOT: So your argument here is that Republicans and conservatives, alleged conservatives are betraying their fiscal conservative credentials and principles?

FLAKE: Yes. And even if you concede that it ought to be Congress directing this spending, the way that we do it in this earmarking process is not transparent. There is no accountability. There is no oversight.

In the transportation-treasury bill just a week ago, 1,500 earmarks were added just three days before we took the bill up on the House floor. My staff couldn't even get those earmarks to see what they were until three days before.

And then we didn't know, still — there were no names on them, so we didn't know who requested them, and they were extremely vague as to what the purpose was. Building a "facility" in a city in West Virginia. What kind of facility? We don't even know. So there is to transparency and that's the biggest problem.

GIGOT: Well, there is another defense of earmarks that your colleagues make and that is that look it is only $67 billion, even if it is 13,000 earmarks, that is not the big money in a $2.5 trillion budget. The big money is in Medicare and Medicaid and entitlements and if Jeff Flake wants to fix the budget problem go after the big targets. Don't go after the small stuff. How do you respond to that?

FLAKE: The problem with earmarks is they are very much, as Tom Coburn in the Senate described them, "the gateway drug to spending addiction."

Once you get earmarks in a bill, you have to vote for the bill regardless of how bloated it becomes. And so you have leveraged your vote for earmarks. And so you vote for bigger bills than you would otherwise.

Also, when you talk about entitlements, the Medicare prescription drug benefit that was passed, I would submit that it wouldn't have been passed were if not for earmarks in related bills or other unrelated bills because members wanted to protect those earmarks. They felt obligated to go along with the leadership and vote for the prescription drug benefit.

That will cost us about $11 trillion in unfunded liabilities in the next 75 years. So it very much impacts other spending as well.

GIGOT: I am sure you have heard from some of your colleagues when they say, look, all you are doing with these amendments on the house floor, trying to strike these earmarks is embarrassing us. You're embarrassing Republicans. You are only getting 60 or so colleagues to go with you, so you are losing these votes.

And you well know that Democrats would be just as bad or might be just as bad, so why are you hurting Republican’s chances to maintain the House of Representatives control in November?

FLAKE: Well, I was told you are just frustrated with the process. Well, have to concede I am. But a lot of people are. And this is simply the only way we can highlight the problem.

This is the only oversight these programs or these earmarks ever receive is five minutes on the floor with a half dozen or so that you can highlight out of thousands that are offered.

But I would submit that the vote we will have today on the line-item veto will be different than it would otherwise because people are more sense active to problems, the political problems with earmarking. So I think it is having an impact.

The lobby reform bill that we passed in the House and the Senate that we have yet to reconcile, that would not have happened without the prospect of embarrassment like this on the House floor.

GIGOT: Do you think that Jerry Lewis — who is the head of the Appropriations Committee and he is under investigation as all newspapers have reported, for some of the earmarks going to political friends, so he hasn't been charged with anything — but do you think he ought to step down as chairman of Appropriations?

FLAKE: Well, I am not going to ask him to. I simply think the whole process is out of control and the Appropriations Committee could do a lot more than they are doing to rein in earmarks. And it is unbelievable given the scrutiny we are under now that we continue to go on and still not put names next to earmarks even though we passed the legislation in the House.

I would think the Appropriations Committee could make a good faith effort to comply with this. But still after I a challenged nine earmarks two days ago on the House floor, of the nine I challenged I still don't know who the author is on two of them. They wouldn't even come and defend them on the House floor yet we upheld them.

GIGOT: All right. Well, congressman, thank you for being here. And keep up the good fight. Thanks.

FLAKE: Thank you.


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