Rep. Flake targets earmarks amidst PMA controversy

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.), the House’s most vocal critic of pork barrel spending, is trying to shake the ethics committee into action on the link between earmarks and campaign contributors.

Flake has seized on the public corruption investigation of PMA Group, a once-powerful lobbying force that has disintegrated in the wake of an FBI probe into fraudulent campaign donations to numerous members of Congress.

 
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In the past 24 hours, Flake has highlighted earmarks in the omnibus appropriations bill for PMA clients, written a scathing op-ed to The New York Times about Congress’s pay-to-play practices and offered a privileged resolution on the House floor that would force the House ethics panel to scrutinize the connection between earmarks and campaign cash and report back to the full body in two months.

“The appearance does not reflect well on the dignity of the House,” Flake said. “These earmarks are essentially for no-bid contracts directed to for-profit entities.”

The privileged resolution, which must be voted on within 48 hours of its introduction, is Flake’s boldest anti-earmark move yet. Despite several reforms to the earmarking process in the last few years, most members on both sides of the aisle have been reluctant to crack down on the general practice of securing specific appropriations for pet projects, so Flake’s resolution has little chance of passing. Most likely, the House will overwhelmingly vote to table it.

Still, the resolution could jog a new ethics entity created last year into reviewing the donations from PMA, a firm with close ties to two senior appropriators, Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.). Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed controversial legislation through the House last year creating the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to provide an extra layer of scrutiny of lawmakers’ activities.

The OCE’s board is made up of several former House members and represents the first time the House has relinquished some of its power to police itself to a more independent-minded body. The new office is supposed to respond to questionable activities raised in complaints, the media and by members of Congress and staff and provide recommendations for further action to the ethics committee.

The FBI raided PMA’s offices in November as part of a Justice Department investigation into fraudulent donations from “straw donors,” contributions from people who either do not exist or whose names were being used to make the donation without their permission. PMA has distributed millions to several lawmakers over the past 10 years.

Flake, however, insists the resolution is not aimed at embarrassing Murtha or anybody else.

“This is far bigger than Murtha and PMA,” he said. “This circular fundraising has been going on for years.”

Flake said he has no idea how much support his resolution will receive on Wednesday, when it is expected to be subject to a motion to table.

At least one appropriator is planning to vote against tabling the resolution.

Rep. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Bottom Line MORE (R-Ill.), who sits on the spending panel, supports many of Flake’s earmark reform efforts over the years and also will back the resolution. On Tuesday he blasted the more than $8 million in pet projects for PMA clients in the omnibus bill.

“There is a complete lack of judgment [on the part of Democratic appropriators] to have put earmarks in a bill for clients of a firm that is under investigation,” he said.

But Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) requested nearly $1 million in the omnibus for Quallion, a company in his district that was a PMA client as of late last year. He said he would have done so regardless of the company’s affiliation with PMA because he believes it has a good product.

The $1 million in the bill was directed to an “anti-idling lithium ion battery program,” according to language in the bill.

Sherman argues that the program is aimed at finding new energy sources for soldiers in the field who want to be able to charge electronic devices from their cars without the engine running, a way for them to remain wired while staying covert.

The ties to the lobbyist have no bearing on Sherman’s support.

“Even Bealzabub sometimes advocates good projects — even [former Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] sometimes supported good projects,” he said.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who also serves on the appropriations panel, said the earmarks for PMA clients in the omnibus bill don’t bother him because lobbyists are in his office all day and none of them curry any special favors with him because of campaign donations.

“I had 12 meetings in my office today for people lobbying me about something,” he said with a shrug. “It’s part of the process.”