Flake worries rule could prevent earmark challenges

Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) is pointing out language in the recently passed economic stimulus package that could shut down challenges to earmarks in the upcoming 2009 omnibus spending debate.

Flake, an ardent earmark foe, believes a one-line statement in the stimulus bill will help Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) avoid self-imposed earmark transparency requirements intended to give members at least two days to scrutinize and challenge pet projects in all appropriations measures.

The language, included in the rule providing for debate on amendments to the economic stimulus bill, allows Obey to “insert in the Congressional Record not later than Feb. 4, 2009, such material as he may deem explanatory of appropriations measures for the fiscal year 2009.”

During debate on that rule, Flake raised concerns over why the line was included in the bill, especially considering reports that Feb. 4 is the same date the omnibus is expected to be brought to the floor for a vote.

“This provision in the stimulus bill sets up the likely eventuality that members will have little time to review the information you deem ‘explanatory of appropriations’ in the combined spending bill,” Flake wrote Obey on Friday.

Attempts to reach Obey’s office Friday were unsuccessful. But when Flake raised similar concerns on the House Floor during the stimulus debate, Obey changed the subject to talk about campaign finance and the need for publicly funded campaigns.

Based on the reports that have been filed for the nine remaining 2009 appropriations bills that Congress failed to pass last year, Flake said he expects there to be at least 4,000 earmarks worth more than $4 billion in the omnibus. He said these earmarks could be airdropped into the final version of the catch-all spending bill, a term referring to pet projects that are placed in final versions of legislation despite not having been approved by the House or Senate during debate of the bill.

Flake is particularly critical about the timing of the move, coming in the wake of high-profile coverage of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged play-to-play schemes and recent reports that the FBI raided the office of a defense-contracting firm that received earmarks Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) requested.

Some of the earmarks that contractor received were included in the fiscal year combined 2009 spending bill Congress approved at the end of last year.

Flake has expressed outrage over the practice of rewarding major campaign donors with earmarks, which has received far more scrutiny by the Justice Department in recent years.

Flake is worried that the Democratic leadership will not allow any amendments on the omnibus bill, thereby providing little or no opportunity for members to review or vet earmarks on the floor.

“While providing the explanatory information in the record may meet some loose standard of transparency, its timing will also certainly provide an end run around any effective accountability,” he wrote in his letter to Obey. “It appears there will be little else for members to do except cast a single vote and wait for the media reports on what the bill actually contains, similar to those we’ve seen on the airdropped defense earmarks.”

The letter echoes a similar objection Flake aired on the House floor Wednesday.

When questioned, Obey changed the debate to campaign finance reform.

“[Flake] continually raises the question of the nexus between earmarks and campaign contributions,” Obey said on the House floor. “I think there's a terrific way to eliminate that nexus. Would he care to join me in cosponsoring the legislation, which I introduced in the first day of the Congress to create 100 percent total public financing and to forbid a single private dollar from being contributed to any Member of the House's campaign?”

“That certainly would eliminate totally any potential nexus between campaign contributions and earmarks and allow the Congress to use its judgment legislatively without bringing into question the integrity of the political process,” Obey continued.

Flake responded that he does not believe taxpayers “should be on the hook” to fund lawmakers’ campaigns.

Obey than summarized the ideological differences between him and Flake, arguing that the Arizona Republican is “more comfortable complaining about earmarks than doing something about campaign financing.”