The Republican Party seems especially schizophrenic these days. Is it the big-government party of George W. Bush, a Tea Party–infused force for smaller government, or something else?
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has represented Arizona’s 6th Congressional District since 2001, is one indicator of how the party might look this decade. A former head of the free market Goldwater Institute, Flake has taken a pro-immigration, pro-trade, anti-spending, limited-government path that contrasts sharply with the GOP mainstream. But Flake has consistently won re-election with double-digit margins and is now within striking distance of the U.S. Senate.
Flake’s campaign against “earmarking,” or larding up bills with giveaways for legislators’ home districts, brought national attention to the issue and inspired some important rule changes. He has been a lonely voice in the House calling for an end to the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. And in a state where officials are notorious for cracking down on both documented and undocumented immigrants, Flake has consistently argued for reducing obstacles to legal immigration and establishing more-effective guest worker programs.
This is not to say Flake could reasonably be called libertarian. In 2001 he was one of 211 House Republicans who voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, and he subsequently voted to renew the law and retain most of its original provisions. After pledging to serve no more than three terms, he changed his mind and ran again in 2006.
Now Flake has his eye on the Senate seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Jon Kyl. While there is plenty of competition for his House job, Flake is so far alone in the race for Arizona’s junior Senate seat.
Late in June, Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh sat down with Flake to discuss these subjects and more.
reason: When the current Congress talks about limited government, how much of the rhetoric is for real and how much is party politics?
Jeff Flake: Both parties behaved rather horribly over the past few decades. If you just take Republicans between the years 2000 and 2006, when we controlled both chambers and the White House, we behaved very badly. We were headed towards this fiscal cliff long before Barack Obama took the wheel. He’s stepped on the accelerator quite a bit, and we’re going to get there a lot faster. But make no mistake: We were headed there.
If you look at those years when we controlled most of the federal government, that’s a pretty good indication of where we had gone to. We had pretty much run out of ideas at that point. We’d passed the Freedom to Farm Act in the ’90s, for example, for getting farmers on a glide path away from subsidies. And in 2002 we passed the Farm Security Act, which basically brought a lot of those subsidies back. You know the old rhetoric that Ronald Reagan used to use about “those who would trade our freedom for security.” We not only did that in practice; we even gave away the rhetoric, replacing the Freedom to Farm Act with the Farm Security Act.
That was just one example. You had the prescription drug benefit, bloated transportation bills, earmarking gone awry—it just wasn’t a good six years for us. We kind of hit the road to Damascus, I think, after 2006 and elected a lot of new freshmen in the Republican Party who have turned things around a bit. But we’ll see whether we’re serious or how serious we are in the coming weeks, the coming months.
reason: How much of this is changing the conversation? Even now, it’s really hard to get the idea out there that all the spending is not actually causing an economic recovery, and that the argument of whether we need to spur the recovery first or pay off the deficit first is a nonargument because that money is not actually making the economy work better.
Flake: Well, it’s difficult. In our rhetoric as Republicans, we talk about the failed stimulus and whatnot. But then when we put up an appropriation bill that basically takes us just back to 2008, or at best maybe 2006, before the stimulus, before a lot of ramp-up in spending; then we have a lot of Republicans holding back and saying, “We can’t do that because the economy needs this kind of spending.” And so I’m not sure if we believe our own rhetoric sometimes.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: You mentioned earmark pork. For a while there you were the hog butcher to the world, the face of anti-earmark momentum in the House. What’s come of that?