Endangered GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on Friday launched a new attack on rival Newt Gingrich’s record in Congress, with his surrogates calling Gingrich the “granddaddy of earmarks.” On the campaign trail, Romney also made an issue of the House’s official reprimand of the former speaker for ethics violations 14 years ago.
On a conference call with reporters, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leader in the GOP effort to fight wasteful earmarked spending on Capitol Hill, said he was astounded by the number of earmarks Gingrich had allowed to go through on bills when he was House speaker. Borrowing a line from former candidate Rick Perry, who ended his campaign on Thursday, Flake called Gingrich the “granddaddy of earmarks,” and said that earmarked spending “exploded” during Gingrich’s speakership from 1995 to 1999. “Members [of Congress] considered earmarks their entitlement,” he said.
Congressional earmarks, which are spending provisions put into bills by lawmakers to benefit their districts or states, have been a touchstone issue for tea party activists in the debate over shrinking the debt and reducing the reach of the federal government.
Joining Flake in the call on Romney’s behalf were two other House Republicans, Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and John Campbell of California. None of the three Romney surrogates served alongside Gingrich in the House, but they said they felt qualified to comment on the former speaker’s lasting legacy.
Campbell said that Gingrich’s tenure “has been a significant part of why the budget has blown up.”
Said Chaffetz: “We didn’t create this mess but we’re here to clean it up.”
Chaffetz also noted that Romney has 64 endorsements from senators and House members, while Newt only has 13. He called the support for Romney in Congress “overwhelming.”
Later, at a campaign stop in Gilbert, S.C., Romney called on Gingrich to release all of the documents related to the ethics case against him in the House that resulted in his reprimand in 1997 and a fine of $300,000. It was the first time in the history of the House that a speaker was disciplined for ethical wrongdoing. Gingrich admitted that he broke congressional rules by lying to the House Ethics Committee and failing to ensure that two of his political projects did not run afoul of federal tax law.
The House’s report on the case was made public, but the underlying investigative documents were not. Romney suggested that those should now be disclosed in full.
“I think over 80 percent of Republican congressmen (at the time) voted to reprimand the speaker of the House -- first time in history,” Romney said. “(House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation. You know it’s going to get out before the general election. Sure, he ought to get it out now.”
Romney reiterated his promise of the last several days to release his 2011 tax returns, although he did not back down from his pledge to release them only after the April filing deadline, not before, when they presumably could become an issue in the early primaries.
One of Romney's major surrogates, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, downplayed the need for him to release his tax documents -- a sign that he has no intention of doing so before Saturday’s primary.
“The people of South Carolina are not talking about tax returns,” she said. “They’re talking about jobs, spending, and the economy, and in all honesty, I’ve heard more people wondering why you [reporters] aren’t asking about ethics reports and ethics problems with the Gingrich campaign. Nobody’s talking about tax returns. They want to know how you’re gonna bring jobs.”
Acknowledging that he is not a sure winner on Saturday now that his early lead in the state has evaporated while Gingrich has gained ground, Romney said, “I’m pretty confident, cautiously optimistic. When I look at the crowd this morning, my enthusiasm meter went up, my confidence goes up. But we’ll see what the numbers are in the final tally. But what I can tell you is, this is a campaign that is gonna go the distance.”