February 22, 2008

Why The House GOP Needs To Be Bold On Earmarks

Over the last few weeks, many of us in the conservative blogosphere have urged House Republican leadership to offer a bold agenda on earmarks and corruption. We advised them to adopt a unilateral moratorium on pork; they declined. We campaigned to get Jeff Flake, a credible reformer, onto the Appropriations Committee; they selected Jo Bonner instead.

Today, Rick Renzi reminds us why the GOP needs to get bold and take big leaps instead of baby steps on reform:

Republican Rep. Rick Renzi was indicted Friday on charges of extortion, wire fraud, money laundering and other matters in an Arizona land swap scam that allegedly helped him collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs.

A 26-page federal indictment unsealed in Arizona accuses Renzi and two former business partners of conspiring to promote the sale of land that buyers could swap for property owned by the federal government. The sale netted one of Renzi's former partners $4.5 million. ...

The indictment accuses Renzi of using his position as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee to push the land swaps for Sandlin, who was also charged. It comes after a lengthy federal investigation into the land development and insurance businesses owned by Renzi's family.

The extensive legal document says Renzi refused in 2005 and 2006 to secure congressional approval for land swaps by two unnamed businesses if they did not agree to buy Sandlin's property as a part of the deal.

Renzi has not yet had his day in court, and is presumed innocent until proven guilty to the satisfaction of a jury. However, Renzi's problems have been well known for months, and he's not the only member of the House GOP caucus with these kinds of problems. Jerry Lewis and John Doolittle both remain under investigation by the FBI for allegations of corruption, and both are known for their pork habits. Lewis is ranking member on the Appropriations Committee.

The Republicans face another cycle where scandals will dominate the elections. In 2006, various corruption and personal-conduct scandals helped strip the GOP of its majority after 12 years in office. In 2007, few members understood the rupture of trust that they needed to heal, and continued to pork up bill after bill along with the Democrats.

Voters will not trust Republicans until they can prove two things: that they have learned their lesson, and that they are significantly different from the Democrats in responsible leadership. Bold moves like unilateral moratoriums and the promotion of tough-minded reformers can help make that argument. Incremental measures such as taken by the Republicans at Greenbrier may help improve the oversight on earmarks, but they don't address the bigger issue of public trust -- which Renzi's 35-count indictment highlights.

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