Flake Bids for Ban on Earmarks

Posted January 26, 2009 at 6:28pm

The pay-to-play scandal involving impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and his alleged shakedowns for campaign contributions has inspired a fresh effort by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to throw a wrench into Capitol Hill’s earmark machine.

Flake’s proposed rules change would ban Members from proposing earmarks if they received campaign contributions from anyone related to the company getting the earmark, including lobbyists, company employees and political action committees.

Reporters and watchdog groups have reported numerous instances of lawmakers funneling millions to their campaign benefactors by cross-referencing campaign finance data with earmark disclosures, and Flake believes that it is just a matter of time before a Blagojevich-like scandal explodes in Washington, D.C.

Flake said the Blagojevich scandal reveals that federal prosecutors are now serious about pursuing corruption stemming from the solicitation of campaign donations — a development that should worry Members of Congress.

“My first thought was that Blagojevich was a rookie compared to what goes on around this place,” he said. “We’ve been whistling past the Justice Department, assuming that the House ethics guidance, written by our colleagues, will protect us from prosecution. I’m just trying to bring our own practice in line with what seems to be reality. I think this is the quickest way to do it.”

Legislation, he said, could prompt First Amendment challenges.

He said he believes transparency rules applied at the start of the previous Congress have already had a chilling effect on fundraising from earmark recipients — but lawmakers hoping to rein in the practice need more tools to do so. “We’re not much for shame,” he said.

The proposed new rule would force many lawmakers to radically alter their earmarking. Every earmark that powerful Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) made to a private entity last year would have been banned under the new rule, for example.

Some veteran appropriators criticized the idea of such a ban when questioned by Roll Call, arguing it could get in the way of worthy projects and saying that they do not specifically ask for campaign contributions when doling out earmarks.

“If you’re an appropriator and there was a rule against contributions to your campaign from people who get earmarks, you’d never raise any money because appropriators appropriate everything,” said Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and one of the biggest earmarkers in the House.

But Young, a former Appropriations chairman, acknowledged that there have been abuses.

“I’d like to say that doesn’t happen,” Young said of trading contributions for earmarks, “but then we had Duke Cunningham.”

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said that existing laws and reforms should suffice. Democrats have pushed through disclosure of earmark requests, and Members are required to certify that they don’t have any financial interest in an earmark.

“There is certainly language on the books banning any kind of quid pro quo,” he said. “I think we need to understand and enforce those laws,” he said.

Asked to comment on Flake’s proposal, Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) referred in a statement from his office to his long support for public financing of campaigns.

“I welcome Jeff Flake’s support for public financing,” Obey said.

A task force named by House Republican leaders, meanwhile, continues to cobble together its own earmark reform proposal.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Republican appropriators, said she had not seen the Flake proposal. “We are anxiously awaiting the earmark reform panel’s recommendations,” she said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted that Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), tapped as New York’s next Senator, refused last year to accept contributions from executives seeking earmarks and returned thousands of dollars she received.

“Members of Congress are saying they are doing these earmarks for a lot of altruistic or other reasons, but this ensures they sever the potential pay-to-play relationship,” he said.