Earmark Issue Hovers Over Approps Opening

Posted February 11, 2008 at 6:34pm

The House Republican Steering Committee is set to meet later this week to decide who will get a vacant Appropriations Committee seat, and while insiders say the pick for the plum position remains up in the air it is clear that the party’s recent dialogue on earmarks will heavily influence the selection.

Seven Republicans are vying for the seat vacated by now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) and Reps. Jo Bonner (Ala.), Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.).

Bonner, Musgrave and Reichert are viewed as nominal favorites going into the Steering Committee meeting, which is likely to take place Thursday.

Without question, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has waged the most public campaign for the slot. Still, most observers believe there is slim to little chance the Steering panel will choose the anti-earmark crusader and regular agitator of leadership on spending issues.

Late last week, Flake sent a letter to Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) making his final pitch for becoming an appropriator.

Flake raised the prospect of having Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a fellow critic of earmarks — as the party’s likely presidential nominee in making his case that wasteful spending will take on an elevated importance in coming months.

He also made the argument that earmarks have not guaranteed political victory in the past — a clear reference to the two politically vulnerable Members who are vying for the Appropriations slot.

“During your tenure in Congress, you have continually disproved the persistent myth that Members must rely on earmarks in order to be re-elected,” Flake wrote, referring to the fact that Boehner personally does not request earmarks. “Earmarks hardly guarantee electoral success. In fact, our party’s success on Election Day this year may depend upon our ability to resist earmarks.”

Republicans have made earmark reform a priority so far this Congress and have asked Democrats to agree to a moratorium on pet projects while the issue is studied. Democratic leaders point to the changes in the earmark process and improved transparency they enacted at the start of this Congress as proof that they have already acted on the issue.

But the conservative wing of the GOP is still unhappy with the progress that has been made so far and, in part, leadership’s handling of the issue, so GOP leaders are acutely aware of how this Appropriations pick will be dissected by their base.

“There’s going to be so much attention focused on this selection, we need to get it right,” acknowledged one GOP leadership source.

The most likely scenario, sources said, is that the committee will look to satisfy the anti-earmark crowd by selecting a Flake-like fiscal conservative who is ultimately not Flake.

“Someone who will get you the result you’re looking for, without being so brazen,” the leadership source said.

Bonner, a former aide to an Appropriations cardinal, and Musgrave, by process of elimination, seem to fit that bill best. Bonner is viewed by insiders as having a slight edge.

Bonner, who also hails from the same region as Wicker, has made a return to the party’s fiscal discipline roots a central theme of his campaign. He has said he does not believe all earmarks are bad, and he has requested them in the past, but he believes that the party has lost its way when it comes to spending.

“Regretfully, my projects — and obviously many others — helped contribute to what eventually became an explosion of ‘pork barrel’ spending that occurred on our watch,” Bonner wrote to his colleagues late last month. “And to be perfectly candid, since we helped create this mess, it should be up to us — House Republicans — to help fix the problem.”

Reichert has said he is against wasteful spending but he also has tied his desire to sit on the Appropriations panel to helping him shore up his re-election prospects, which is worrisome to some conservatives.

Reichert is the most politically vulnerable of the seven Republicans seeking the seat, and he faces a tough re-election against Democrat Darcy Burner. Burner pledged last week that, if elected, she will post a list of all earmarks and targeted tax benefits that she has requested on her official Web site.

But critics note that because Reichert hails from a swing district, it might be tough for him to be a reliable Republican vote — especially on controversial riders and other measures considered in committee.

Musgrave also is in a somewhat vulnerable position politically, though her district is much more reliably Republican than Reichert’s is. Musgrave is a strong social conservative, and picking her for the Appropriations seat would help to mollify the party’s ideological base.

As for Cole — who perhaps in the past would have been viewed as the favorite because of his current position in leadership — his problems are twofold.

First, Cole has made his case for seeking the Appropriations seat based, in part, on the theory that it will help in fundraising for the cash-strapped NRCC.

Critics bristle at that reasoning, grumbling that in the wake of the Jack Abramoff influence peddling scandal the last thing the party needs is to give any impression of a quid pro quo in trading money for legislative favors.

Cole also has a full plate in running the NRCC this cycle, and some insiders privately question whether he would have the time to manage both positions. The NRCC recently announced that the FBI is looking into “financial irregularities” that were discovered. Cole’s tenure at the committee is not under scrutiny, but the investigation announcement does not help his Appropriations bid.

Also seeking the Appropriations seat are Reps. Henry Brown (S.C.) and Michael Turner (Ohio).

Brown served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the South Carolina state House, and he is stressing that experience as well as his seniority in making his pitch for the Appropriations opening.

In an interview, Brown emphasized that if the GOP is going to talk tough about reducing the deficit, “all line-items, not just earmarks,” need to be scrutinized.

Turner’s biggest problem is that, if selected, he would become the third Ohio Republican on the Appropriations Committee, joining retiring Reps. David Hobson and Ralph Regula.

Turner may well be a leading candidate to get one of those Appropriations slots at the end of this Congress, but there is skepticism about whether he has a strong enough argument for going onto the committee now instead of at the beginning of next year.

If current committee ratios hold, Republicans will have six slots to fill on the Appropriations panel going into the next Congress.

In addition to filling the Appropriations vacancy, the steering panel also will make recommendations to fill the vacancies on several other panels due to midterm resignations.

All of the recommendations will be sent to the entire GOP Conference for approval.