CONGRESSMAN JEFF FLAKE SAYS MANY HOUSE MEMBERS
ALSO WANT TO DO AWAY WITH EARMARKS AND SECRETLY
SUPPORT HIS QUEST TO END THEM -- "60 MINUTES"
Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has been publicly raked over the coals by his fellow House representatives for his crusade against earmarks. Earmarks are the often-hidden parts of legislation that fund pet projects in House members' home districts, allowing the politicians to "bring home the bacon." But Flake tells Morley Safer that, privately, many House members hope he ends the questionable custom that many consider to be a great waste of taxpayer dollars. Safer's report will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday, Nov. 5 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Earmarks, worth $70 billion in 2006 alone, are criticized for often benefiting lobbyists and their industries and because the lobbyists will then host fundraisers for House members' campaigns. Members often swap votes for one another's legislation so the earmarks pass. It's a Washington game Flake says his colleagues are tiring of. "I have to tell you that a lot of [House members]�are sick of this game. They had higher aspirations when they were elected," says Flake. "And so, privately, they're cheering and saying, 'I hope he changes the system, because I'm tired of it,'" he tells Safer.
But Flake is one of the few politicians who will talk about earmarks, which are usually hidden deep inside legislative bills so their originators remain secret and they rarely get debated. "The vast majority of [earmarks] we have no idea [who benefits or sponsors them]," say Flake. "Some of them don't want anyone to know ever that they got that earmark other than the lobbyist they got it for.
Sometimes earmarks do get debated and are taken out of the bills. One of the biggest examples was $223 million for a bridge in the Alaskan wilderness which was almost approved. Other examples that did get approved include $500,000 for a teapot museum in North Carolina.
Earmarks can be the cause of criminal charges against politicians. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) went to jail for taking bribes from defense contractors. "[Cunningham] was [selling earmarks]. In fact, they found papers where he had listed how much he'd demanded for each earmark," says Flake.
Flake's attempts on the House floor to foil earmarks -- he's been shot down 39 times -- have made him unpopular among fellow representatives. And his refusal to trade in earmarks has hurt his reputation among politicians in his own district. Three of the five mayors in his district did not endorse his re-election two years ago. Says Flake, "[The mayors] said, 'He's not bringing home the bacon, let's get rid of him.' But they found out quickly.�For everyone who stops me on the street and says, 'Why don't you give money to this library or this museum?' you know, you have a hundred saying, 'Atta boy,'" he tells Safer.