Bass, Flake press the 3 candidates

Republican Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), the co-chairman of the centrist Republican Tuesday Group, and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a leading member of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), met jointly yesterday with the three candidates for House majority leader in an effort to push them to adopt an aggressive reform agenda.

Specifically, Bass and Flake want to decentralize power in the House Republican Conference through a number of substantial reforms. Both are calling for budget-process and earmark reform, putting them in league with numerous members of the RSC who have also backed such initiatives.

Bass and Flake kicked off the race for majority leader earlier this month with a petition demanding a vote to replace permanently former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay announced the following day that he would not try to reclaim the post.

Neither lawmaker has yet endorsed any of the three candidates vying to succeed DeLay.

In an interview in Bass’s office yesterday, Flake said that he and his colleague will “try to force the candidates to come out with a reform agenda and not have this race be about personal relationships or promises or whatever else.”

“The leadership structure has evolved with earmarks and leadership PACs where [the result is that] leadership is far too powerful,” Flake said. “The rest of our colleagues share that view. To the extent we can continue to highlight that, [it] may serve some purpose.”

Sitting alongside Flake yesterday, Bass explained his belief that leadership PACs and earmarks in spending bills increase the power leaders have over rank-and-file members. Because of leadership PACs, Bass said, less money is given directly to rank-and-file lawmakers. Instead, much passes through the committees of leaders who in turn distribute it to colleagues in exchange for allegiance. Leaders also stifle dissent by promising federal money in earmarks or by threatening to withhold that money.

“I’ve started talking about the concept of banning leadership PACs,” Bass said. “When power’s aggregated in leadership too much, you don’t have good government.”

Flake said he believes the leadership elections are not “just about picking a new leader but also about an agenda leading us to victory in 2006,” adding that “we’ll want real reform.”

Bass, who said he would support a one-year moratorium on spending earmarks, said that lobbying reform and spending reform are equally important.

“I think the heavier lifting is the budget-process and earmarks [reform],” said Flake. “Lobbyist reform is blaming somebody else. I just fear that there will be too much blaming and not focus on what we need to do.”

Leading members of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of nearly 100 self-described conservatives, making it the largest voting bloc in the Republican Conference, say that spending reform will be the most important issue in the ongoing race for House majority leader.

Members of the group thwarted an effort by lawmakers supporting interim Majority Leader Roy Blunt (Mo.) to move up the date of the leadership election, arguing that they wanted a chance to discuss the candidacies during a retreat scheduled for Jan. 29-31 in Baltimore.

“The main thrust of the retreat will revolve around budget-process reform,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), an influential member of the RSC. “There have been conversations with leadership aspirants asking for budget-process reform. The issue has matured.”

Lawmakers running to replace former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority leader seem to have heard the message. In an interview Monday, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who entered the race for majority leader Friday, said his candidacy is about “substantive reform,” citing a number of spending changes that “need to be done.”

Shadegg wants to create a commission to review an end to federal spending programs, to simplify the budget from 20 categories to five, and to imbue the joint budget resolution with the force of law. He also said that he supports substantial earmark reform. 

In an opinion article published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is also running for majority leader, wrote that Congress must “start addressing the growing practice of unauthorized earmarks” and praised Flake’s “bold ideas to solve this problem.”

Bass and Flake said that they both encouraged Shadegg to enter the race for majority leader to push Boehner and interim Majority Leader Roy Blunt to support more aggressive reforms.

“I encouraged him to get in the race as a way to draw the others out,” Flake said.

Blunt’s aides issued a statement to The Hill yesterday, delineating their boss’s support for budget-process reform: “Congressman Blunt is supportive of budget-process reforms. The key, as always, is coming up with a package that can be enacted so that it actually has some impact on controlling spending. That means not just securing a majority of the House but 60 votes in the Senate as well. Blunt remains committed to working on this issue this year.”

Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for Blunt, also said that he kicked off his campaign by calling for reform in a letter to colleagues.