Months of characteristic doggedness paid off last week for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) when he appeared to accomplish a feat his own leaders have struggled to match: backing a muscular Democratic majority into a corner, then getting it to fold.
Aiming to head off Flakes latest attempt to force an ethics committee investigation of the defunct lobbying firm PMA Group and its ties to senior Democrats, the majority on Wednesday overwhelmingly called for the ethics panel to disclose whether it is probing the matter.
Flake could have declared victory and moved on. Instead, the anti-earmark crusader, who has carved out a niche as an equal-opportunity antagonist on the issue of targeted spending provisions, said he is just getting started.
The endgame was never just to have the ethics committee investigate, Flake said. The endgame is to stop this practice of allowing individual Members to award no-bid contracts to their campaign contributors, and until that practice stops, weve got to move ahead.
With the appropriations season humming to life, Flake and his staff are combing through lists of earmark requests to identify projects he hopes to challenge on the House floor.
Last week, he sent a letter to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct asking it to make clear that campaign contributions constitute a financial interest for lawmakers requesting earmarks. He said he will push the change through legislation if the panel is unreceptive.
And, with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Flake is trying to drum up support for what would amount to a game-changer for earmarking: altogether banning projects for private companies.
And as for the PMA scandal, the five-term Arizonan said the effect of the Democrats move last week remains to be seen. Flake joined Republican leaders in criticizing Democrats for simply referring their measure to the ethics committee instead of approving it outright and forcing the panel to disclose within 45 days whether it has taken action in the case.
Democrats acknowledged their move does not require the panel to act, but they argued it sent an unmistakable signal. The procedure may seem odd, but there is no doubt that the message was very clear, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Thursday. And the message is: This is a serious matter raising serious questions and ought to be looked at.
Flake, for the time being, appears willing to take Hoyer at his word. He consulted with Hoyer twice over the past several months to discuss the issue and described him as seeming at least sympathetic to what Im doing.
In the wake of the Democratic gambit last week, Flake pulled his ninth attempt at forcing an investigation. But he said he is not yet sure how long he will hold his fire.
Well see, he said. If the ethics committee does not act pretty soon, or if he hears Democratic leaders backtracking on their call for action, he said he would consider offering the Democrats own resolution himself, without the 45-day grace period.