House GOP Prepares One-Two Punch on Earmarks

Congressional job-approval polls are mired at about 25% — 10 points below President Bush’s popularity ratings. One significant reason for the low rating is Americans’ frustration about the congressional “earmarks” process in which members set aside funding — usually amounting to millions of dollars — for pet projects that benefit constituents.

Hidden From Public

The process of earmarking — despite conservatives’ efforts this year and Democratic leadership promises to the contrary — was kept concealed from the public’s view last year. Congressmen such as John Murtha (D.-Pa.) — the uncrowned king of earmarks — have fought successfully against disclosure because they do not want any accountability for what most observers agree is the waste of billions of tax dollars.

Now, a small group of Republican House conservatives is planning a move that could force reform on House Democrats and the Senate.

These conservative members — including Representatives Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — are planning a major initiative against congressional earmarks on which they will try to get conference-wide agreement at the Republican retreat scheduled for Wednesday through Friday of this week at the Greenbrier Resort.
According to a congressional source, the conservatives plan to ask the entire Republican House Conference to agree to a yearlong moratorium on earmarks. That would be accompanied by the appointment of Flake to the House Appropriations Committee. Our source said that the earmarks moratorium is one of the “bold strokes” the conservatives intend to use to set the tone for this year’s congressional session.

The impact of this moratorium could be significant. First, it would demonstrate the commitment of House Republicans to real reform of how the peoples’ money is spent. Second, if it is followed by the appointment of Flake to the Appropriations Committee, it would be, in the words of our source, “putting our fox in the henhouse.”

The source also said that the House GOP meeting at which committee members will be chosen was, only last Thursday, postponed until after the retreat, which opens the window of opportunity wider for the conservatives’ move.

If the conservatives succeed in obtaining agreement to the moratorium and then in getting Flake on the Appropriations Committee, the Democrats will be under enormous pressure. They will be Flake’s only targets.

The pressure generated wouldn’t be only on House Democrats, but also on Senate Republicans. Some of the most profligate earmarkers such as Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens would be under tremendous pressure to quit spending taxpayers’ money on projects such as the now-infamous “bridge to nowhere.”

This initiative could be the combination punch that knocks earmarks out and helps revive the Republican brand as the party of limited government. Stay tuned.