Friday, May 13, 2011

Jeff Flake: Giant Killer

In 2008 arch-earmark-foe Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) initiated a full court press for his assignment to the Appropriations Committee. Supporters circulated an internet petition supporting his request. Despite a spirited fight, Flake was not assigned to the committee. He and his supporters attributed his failure to resistance from earmark defenders.

In the wake of the 2010 election, with the Republicans riding a wave of voter discontent fueled, in part, by disdain for earmarks, and with appropriators on their heels, Flake once again made a run at an appointment to the Appropriations Committee. Making his closing argument for an appointment in an Op-Ed in The Washington Post  Flake argued that earmarks were distracting the Appropriations Committee from its role as guardian of the Treasury:
Those who view earmarking as an expression of the "congressional prerogative" sell Congress short of its preeminent role as the first branch of government. As the defenders of earmarking are fond of saying, earmarks represent less than 2 percent of all federal spending. Precisely! By focusing on a measly 2 percent of spending, we have given up effective oversight on the remaining 98 percent.[1]
Flake argued that the committee, by focusing its efforts on earmarks, fails in the larger effort to closely scrutinize the more costly and more important expenditures. In the same Op-Ed he concluded that,
Without the earmark distraction, Congress can return to the deliberative process of authorization, appropriation and oversight, thus reining in spending abuses of the administration rather than simply piling on with spending abuses of our own.
 In an Appropriations Committee oversight hearing on Wednesday Flake attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for making grants worth a few hundred thousand dollars to a mime company in San Francisco and supporting an accordion festival.[2]

Those who supported Jeff Flake’s holy war on earmarks should be rolling their eyes, but we suspect they are not. Is this what Flake’s rebellion has become? Shifting the focus from a few silly-sounding earmarks to a few silly-sounding federal grants? Is this how Flake intended to wield the potent appropriations oversight power all along?

Or, perhaps Flake intends to go through the federal budget with a very, very, very, very fine-toothed comb.

The other irony here is the claim by earmark foes that expenditures determined through competitive, peer-reviewed, bureaucratic processes are superior to earmarks. The mimes and accordionists were funded using the competitive bureaucratic process boosted by earmark critics, yet they produced silly-sounding expenditures.

The fact is that many specific government expenditures, taken in isolation, sound silly. Case in point: recently the Department of Defense released a request for bids to repair a Koi Fish Pond at Travis Air Force Base in California. That sounds pretty silly to us.[3] And when silly sounding expenditures are brought to their attention, the media takes the bait every time.  But they miss the broader implications. In the debate over earmarks the media consistently reported on the silly-sounding earmarks; but they missed the larger debate about the congressional power of the purse and the ability of members of Congress to adapt broad federal programs to the needs of their states and districts. In this case the argument is not about a few silly-sounding grants, but whether the National Endowment for the Arts should continue to exist and receive funding. That is the argument on which the media should be reporting, and that is a debate that all Americans should have a voice in. 

Let’s be clear about the fiscal stakes.  Mr. Flake is focusing attention on a couple of grants that amount to a few hundred thousand dollars.  The total National Endowment for the Arts budget request for fiscal year 2012 is about $146 million, or less than one third of the amount this country spends on military bands in a year.[4]   Elimination of the entire National Endowment for the Arts would not make a dent in a deficit of $1,480,000,000,000. 

However, focusing the public’s attention on a few well chosen examples of “wasteful” spending will only contribute to creating the false impression that the budgetary imbalance is the result of wasteful spending and that balancing the federal budget can be easily accomplished. The public’s lack of understanding of the composition of the federal budget is well known, and it is easy to convince voters that silly spending is the root of our budgetary problems. 

Instead of focusing attention on the pittance we spend on mimes and accordion festivals, Mr. Flake might consider following Willie Sutton’s advice.  When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton famously replied “because that is where the money is.”  The money in the federal budget is in the Department of Defense, entitlement programs, and the flip side of earmarks, targeted tax breaks (known in Washington as tax expenditures).  If Mr. Flake truly cares about addressing our fiscal imbalance, he would be best to look to these programs instead of continuing to garner media attention by highlighting alleged waste in minuscule programs, the elimination of which will do nothing to solve the problem, but will only serve to promote anti-government feeling among an already cynical American public.  
[1] Jeff Flake, “An earmark fight Congress doesn't need,” November 12, 2010.

[2] Erik Wasson, “GOP blasts NEA grants to 'Frisco mimes, accordion festival” May 11, 2011

[3] Repair Coy (sic) Fish Pond, Solicitation Number: F3ZT911081A002-PondRepair, Agency: Department of the Air Force, Office: Air Mobility Command, Location: 60th CONS

[4] Walter Pincus. “Defense Department spends $500 million to strike up the bands” The Washington Post. September 6, 2010.

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