For 26 years, from 1949 to 1975, the late Iowa Republican H.R. Gross drove his House colleagues up a wall by challenging just about every spending bill that came up on the House floor, even to complaining about the having the taxpayers foot the bill for the gas used to keep the eternal flame burning at JFK's grave. By the time he retired, Gross was credited with saving the taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars.
It's been a long time since the taxpayers had a champion like H. R. Gross keeping a sharp eye on what his colleagues are doing with their money, but a new watchdog, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake has now stepped into the breach, targeting so-called "earmarks" - billions in congressional appropriations members use to fund pet projects in their districts.
“The earmarking process is fraught with a lack of transparency, fiscal responsibility and equity for taxpayers, all too often rewarding the districts of powerful members of Congress in the Appropriations Committee at the expense of the rest of the body," Rep. Flake told the L.A. Times.
Flake, 44, was first elected to the House in 2000. The Times wrote that Flake, one of 11 children, 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's now fighting colleagues who are milking the taxpayers.
Flake makes no distinction between Democratic earmarks and those sponsored by members of his own party. To him, an aarmark is an earmark - a scandalous misuse of taxpayer dollars whether the sponsor is a Republican or a Democrat.
Earmarks are appropriations often sneaked unseen into spending bills, that fund projects in the sponsoring members' districts, and Flake explains that few if any benefit taxpayers outside of the district.
Stationing himself on the House floor, Jeff Flake calls attention to the earmarks all but hidden in spending bills, and shines the light of day on them, identifying their sponsors and embarrassing them. In doing he has torn away their cloak of anonymity that used to protect them from public attention. He makes few friends in the process.
He hardly ever succeeds in killing earmarks, as the Times points out thousands of earmarks worth millions of dollars "still cling to this year's spending bills like barnacles."
Thanks largely however to Flake's persistence, the congressional leadership has promised to both cut the number of earmarks and see that they are exposed to public scrutiny.
So far he has only the killing of one earmark - a $129,000 earmark for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree, a North Carolina program that creates jobs for artisans to his credit. "I am prepared after this amendment to answer to the name Grinch," he told the Times.
Last year, his amendments to strike earmarks drew an average of 68 votes. This year, the average rose to 85 Votes.
Said Flake, "A lot of people are really sick of this game, They had higher aspirations than to beg for crumbs that fall from appropriators' tables."
To some he's a hero of the taxpayers. "At the very least, there is a scrutiny of the budget process that wasn't there before," Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the libertarian Cato Institute told the Times.
To others he's pain in the neck, insisting 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, told the Times 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."
The Times recalled that Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) recently reached his boiling point when Flake dared to challenge a $400,000 earmark in the chairman's home state. "I think it comes with considerable ill grace," Obey fumed.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the committee's top Republican, recently told Flake that he was doing a disservice in attempting to portray Republicans as fiscally undisciplined.
"The gentleman is wrong," he said.
His pugnacity on the issue Flake told the Times cost him a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, but his colleagues 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
Recently Flake struck out at an earmark that appeared designated for an orgainzation that did not appear to exist.
According to Politico.com's The Crypt, Flake questioned Democratic Rep. Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana on the House floor, asking whether something called the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure actually exists. Incredibly, Visclosky, who chairs the spending subcommittee responsible for the project, allowed that he didn't have a clue.
Asked Flake: "Does the center currently exist?"
"At this time, I do not know," he said "But if it does not exist, the monies could not go to it."
It developped that the sponsor of the earmark was none other than Pennsylvania Democrat John P. Murtha. And the Concurrent Technologies Corporation which does exist is run by Daniel R. DeVos, who has kicked in $7,000 to Murtha's reelection campaign since April 2002.
Last year Flake listed some of the more outragious earmarks that sailed through the House: $597,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006) $25,000 to Mifflintown, Pennsylvania for developing a playground facility. (Transportation-Treasury-HUD Appropriations Bill for FY 2006) $1,350,000 to pasteurize shell eggs in Michigan. (Agriculture Appropriations bill for FY 2006) $500,000 for expanding the Atlanta Symphony Center. (Transportation-Treasury-HUD Appropriations Bill for FY 2006) $229,000 for dairy education in Iowa. (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006) $250,000 to Sparta, North Carolina for constructing the Sparta Teapot Museum. (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)
While the Times reports that Flake has been criticized by some constituents for depriving his district of money for projects, he retorts "for everybody who comes to me and says, 'Hey, you should be getting earmarks,' I have a hundred who say, 'Atta boy, keep up what you're doing.' "
Noting that earmark-funded projects often get named for the earmarker, the Times wrote, "There's no Flake Center for Cactus Research. "
"If I have something named after me when I leave Congress," he told the Times, "I'll consider my time here a failure."
In the meantime he seems to agree with H.R. Gross's insistence that there's no such thing as a federally funded free lunch: "There is always free cheese in a mousetrap, " a sign in Gross's office proclaimed.
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