Earmark victory shows power of one persistent voice

Tim Phillips President, Americans for Prosperity
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Sometimes we all wonder if one person can make a difference. I hear that question a lot at rallies and events—“Am I making a difference?”

A few years ago in Congress, one man—Rep. Jeff Flake from Arizona—stood and waged a principled battle to stop earmarks. Flake forced vote after vote on his colleagues’ earmarks. And he lost every single vote. Often only 10 or 20 fellow members voted with him.

The then-Republican Speaker of the House told him to stop, as did other powerful Republicans and Democrats. Flake kept forcing roll call votes and forcefully speaking out.

The Speaker stripped Flake of his best committee assignment. Newspapers back home wrote that voters in the district expected Flake to bring home the bacon. When I would visit Capitol Hill in those days, the loneliest place in the cafeteria was always next to Rep. Flake.

But he persevered.

At the same time, the number of earmarks was growing exponentially. In the 1990s, appropriations bills had about 1,500 earmarks; by 2008, it was around 11,000.

While Rep. Flake was putting on the pressure in Washington, Americans for Prosperity Foundation started educating citizens about the problem. Four years ago, AFP Foundation took our Ending Earmarks Express R.V. tour across more than 15,000 miles, visiting the 50 most egregious earmarks in 37 states. We visited a Teapot Museum in North Carolina, a catfish genome mapping project in Alabama, and many more.

You may remember the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that finally tilted the playing field—our Ending Earmarks Express went all the way to Alaska to visit it. Public opinion was starting to turn.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the House changed its rules and required earmark sponsors’ names to be public. It’s kind of hard to believe it took that long for members of Congress even to own up to all their pork projects—since they often benefited from them the more people knew about them.

AFP Foundation recently released a study that showed evidence House members gain electoral advantage by getting earmarks for their districts. A 100-percent increase in earmark funding translated into an increase in vote share between 4.1 percent and 5.7 percent, study author Dr. Thomas Stratmann found.

If the objective is to get re-elected, then, unfortunately, earmarking works. That’s why it took such remarkable political courage for Jeff Flake to lead this fight. Ending earmark corruption means standing up for fiscal responsibility while sacrificing the practical political advantages that come from bringing home the bacon.

This past week saw a watershed moment in the long fight for earmark reform. The Republican Conference in the House of Representatives passed a complete ban on Republican members requesting and receiving earmarks. And the Democrats took the significant, through limited, step of banning earmarks for “for-profit” entities. (They apparently believe that when the lobbyists begging for federal tax dollars are being paid with state and local tax dollars, the process is more virtuous.)

We’re slowly but surely on the road to victory on this issue. But it’s important to recall the effort in Congress started with one principled elected leader—Jeff Flake—and he deserves our thanks for standing strong even in opposition to his own colleagues when he knew it was the right thing to do. It’s an inspiration to each of us committed to the sometimes lonely fight for limited government and fiscal responsibility.

Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a free-market grassroots organization with more than 975,000 members nationwide.