Earmark and Spending Reform Sparks Attention

More than 3,500 American citizens participated in a national town hall telephone conference call with earmark reform leader Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) last night.

Hosted by American for Prosperity, a group dedicated to educating the public on free markets and limited government, people from states across the country were invited to dial in with their questions regarding pork-barrel spending and responsible economic legislation.

The forum was sponsored by AFP in effort to promote the upcoming Defending the American Dream Summit in Washington DC on October 4-5. The Summit will feature presidential candidate Mitt Romney, ABC’s John Stossel and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) among the list of speakers.

Flake was a leading member of the AFP sponsored Earmark Express bus, which highlighted the most outrageous Congressional spending , and toured the country in 37 states last year.

One North Carolina caller suggested Americans send the Congressmen tea bags to voice their opposition to high taxes while an older gentleman form Oregon (“I’ve been voting Republican for 60 years”) claimed a big problem was Democratic leadership, saying “I can’t stand the smell of Democrats.”

The infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska — to cost $320 million in taxpayer money — highlighted earmark-related corruption and is referenced frequently in spending discussions. Last night was no different. 

“Gratefully because there were so many groups around the country who were so incensed…the bridge to nowhere was just the bridge that went too far,” said Flake, who was rated number one for supporting anti-pork amendments in  the Club for Growth’s re-Pork card on Monday. Of 50 proposed amendments to strip excessive pork from appropriations bills, Flake’s was the only one who passed.

He stressed the progress of the earmark reform movement, referencing a specific instance where an earmark sponsor “beat me to the floor and offered his own amendment to strike his own earmark.” The recipient organization was under investigation and the sponsor didn’t want that known.

Flake noted there is now better dialogue on the House floor because “more people are engaged in it.” He cited Rep. Jeb Henserling (R-Tex.), John Campbell (R- Calif.), and John Shaddeg (R-Ariz.) as big players in the movement.

“For those who say earmarks are just a small part of the federal budget…they are greater than the sum of their parts in terms of importance,” said Flake. “Tom Coburn likes to say they are the gateway drug to spending addiction because once you get an earmark in a bill you have to vote for that bill…or risk losing your earmark.”

He added that earmarks are often held over the heads of politicians to get their votes on bills they wouldn’t otherwise support, citing the recent prescription drug and transportation legislation stuffed with pork. Politicians, he said, are compelled to vote for some bills in what he termed “an unseemly process” that must stop.

Though many involved in the earmark reform movement are Republican, Flake has taken a bipartisan approach. He said many of his colleagues don’t like his outspoken efforts.

“I’ve made a point not to target Democrats or Republicans but just target egregious earmarks wherever they’re requested and because I’ve done that maybe they’ve cut me a little more slack,” he said, adding that “a lot of them are privately cheering that we get rid of this practice.”

The earmark habit, now less easily concealed due to transparency efforts, hits older and younger members of Congress. Flake said it was a relatively new phenomenon and “really over the past decade when we were in charged that this process really got underway.” He said newer members have been coached to believe this is how you get reelected and older members are often set in their ways.

Callers asked about everything from term limits to an explanation of the difference between pork and earmarks. (Earmarks are the specific tags associated with the distribution of pork.) Flake said he thought transparency would be enough but it’s not. He encouraged citizens to travel to DC for the Summit and “put the pressure on” because “you need activists, you need others to say hey this isn’t what limited government is.” He was optimistic about future earmark reduction noting that lately the appropriations committee has moved to strike earmarks from bills when they heard of a challenge.

“The key here is to make sure that politicians know that in the future of pork barrel spending…when you’re going into an election it’s going to be easier to say I voted against these earmarks rather than I got this museum money,” he said. “When we change this…we’ll change the whole process [of elections].”