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Lawmaker's mission: Put a bug in their earmarks

Rep. Jeff Flake may be pork spending's peskiest foe. But he gets heard.

August 27, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

washington -- When Rep. Jeff Flake rises to speak in the House of Representatives, his colleagues grimace.

Usually, the Arizona Republican is out to shame them over earmarking money for pet projects that have little to do with federal priorities.

The House's No. 1 earmark-hater spares no one: not fellow Republicans, not committee chairs, not Arizona colleagues, not even Punxsutawney Phil.

A $100,000 earmark for the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center in Pennsylvania, home of the celebrated weather-predicting groundhog, was among the scores of projects Flake has derided as pork.

Flake is one of a handful of lawmakers -- including Sen. John McCain, a presidential candidate and fellow Arizona Republican -- who rail against pork-barrel spending. But Flake is perhaps the peskiest.

Repeatedly, he has tried to kill projects. And always, he failed -- until recently.

Flake finally notched his first kill: a $129,000 earmark for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree, a North Carolina program that creates jobs for artisans. "I am prepared after this amendment to answer to the name Grinch," he said.

Yet his victory was almost undetectable.

Thousands of earmarks worth millions of dollars still cling to this year's spending bills like barnacles. But partly as a result of Flake's relentless nagging -- not to mention recent earmarking scandals -- congressional leaders have pledged to reduce the number of earmarks and open the process to more public scrutiny.

Flake's gripe is that projects are slipped into bills, often at a lobbyist's behest, without much, if any, public justification. "The earmarking process is fraught with a lack of transparency, fiscal responsibility and equity for taxpayers," he said, "all too often rewarding the districts of powerful members of Congress in the Appropriations Committee at the expense of the rest of the body."

Flake's persistence may be starting to pay off.

Last year, his amendments to strike earmarks drew an average of 68 votes. This year, the average rose to 85 votes.

"A lot of people are really sick of this game," Flake said. "They had higher aspirations than to beg for crumbs that fall from appropriators' tables."

First elected to the House in 2000, Flake is a blond 44-year-old with a Beach Boys look. One of 11 children, he was raised on a ranch in the Arizona town of Snowflake (named in part after his great-great-grandfather, one of two founders). He jokes that he went into politics "to get off the farm, quit milking cows."

He served as a Mormon missionary in Africa and was executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank, where he said he worked to promote a philosophy of less government and more individual responsibility.

The conservative's campaign against earmarks is typical of his independent streak. He was among a handful of Republicans who voted against the No Child Left Behind education measure and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which President Bush counts among his proudest achievements. Flake pushed to replace Tom DeLay as House majority leader early last year after the Texas Republican was indicted. And he broke with his party's leadership to push for an overhaul of immigration laws.

Budget watchdogs consider him a hero. "At the very least, there is a scrutiny of the budget process that wasn't there before," said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Flake's colleagues consider him a nuisance. They say he wants to take away their power to determine what's best for their districts and let nonelected Washington bureaucrats decide. John Feehery, a former House GOP leadership aide, said Flake "tends to rub people the wrong way," but has forced lawmakers to reflect on their earmarks.

"He's not running for Mr. Congeniality. He's running for Mr. Crank. And he's winning the title."

Flake believes his criticism of his party cost him a seat on the House Judiciary Committee. But his colleagues also pay him grudging respect because his attacks aren't personal or partisan -- and because he doesn't seek his own earmarks.

"He's taken a small issue and made it into an issue of national debate," Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) said, even after Flake's amendment killed his earmark for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree. "He's moving the debate in his direction."

Flake blames his party's recent loss of its congressional majority on the explosion of earmarks in spending bills, which exploded from 1,439 in 1995 to nearly 14,000 in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

"This process is out of control," Flake said during a recent debate. "I think Democrats are as much to blame probably as Republicans are. The difference is, as Republicans, we pretend to stand for limited government."

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