‘We Were Headed Towards This Fiscal Cliff Long Before Barack Obama Took the Wheel’

Rep. Jeff Flake talks about Republican corruption, federal spending, the PATRIOT Act, immigration, and the virtues of divided government.

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?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • NotSure||

    It is actually refreshing to see that America is actually producing politicians that can say things straight. Compare that to your standard politician in Europe who says a lot of things without them actually meaning very much.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Show us your pecs!

  • ||

    Jeff Flake's abs for senate, 2012.

    On a serious note, I think politics would be a lot better in the US if all federal level politicians were legally required to wear The Situation shirts whenever they are politicianing. Much harder to take yourself seriously to the degree required to write something like PPACA or Dodd-Frank when your abs (or distended guts) are hanging out for all to see.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    I hadn't seen some Jeff Flake love here in awhile. I was thinking he'd be one of the few politicians Reasonoids would probably like (along with Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Chris Christie and probably very few others).

  • Rich||

    I don't claim he's a flaming libertarian, but California congresscreature Tom McClintock seems pretty straightforward. Anybody know what skeletons he has?

  • ||

    did anyone find this question indefensible if not down right stupid: "Why does it never occur to anyone that the border becomes less secure the more it is policed?"

    hello, Reason, can someone explain the logic behind this question?
    reminds me of the exchange between Princess Leia and the Grand Moff Tarkin...

  • Doug||

    Yes. I read it five or six times before admitting that I failed to comprehend it.

  • Dylan||

    Take "less secure" ==> "dangerous".

  • ||

    I did not find it indefensible. I think it's the same logic as being against drug prohibition - the more you police drugs and try to prevent them from being imported, the shorter the supply gets, driving prices up, thus incentivizing more people to enter the drug trade. The legal risks at this point are so high and the trade so valuable that only more daring and violent individuals are willing to enter it, thus creating more violence in the drug trade.

    Sometimes trying to fight against a thing only makes it worse. I think both drug prohibition and restrictions on immigration are that type of issue.

  • Untermensch||

    Makes perfect sense, but there is an implicit corollary needed. That is that the policing is intended to stop almost all border crossing (i.e., it's trying to stamp out the circular migration that Flake is talking about rather than control clearly criminal activity).

    The notion is that when you step up your policing and focus on trying to do everything, rather than focusing on obviously criminal threats (e.g., the guys trying to import criminal activity), you lose your focus on those same real threats and they actually have an easier time getting through because your policing activity is so tied down and diluted by a myriad of lesser threats.

    Think of it another way: If you have five agents at a customs point who are supposed to keep people from smuggling in contraband produce (and who ignore other violations), they could do a pretty good job. Now suppose you double their number, but quadruple the infractions they are supposed to patrol for, they will be much less effective at stopping produce smugglers, even thought you have overall stepped up policing activity.

  • ||

    I was thinking he'd be one of the few politicians Reasonoids would probably like

    I'm sure he fails one of the the multitudinous purity tests, and is thus no better than a minion of Satan.

  • ||


  • Colin||

    Of course, all this means little considering he just endorsed fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney.

    Just another phoney.

  • Robbie||

    "‘We Were Headed Towards This Fiscal Cliff Long Before Barack Obama Took the Wheel’"
    This is very true.

  • ||

    "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank"

  • Yet another Dave||

    Absolutely we were headed toward this cliff before Team Blue took the helm, and Team Red definitely has their hands dirty in the matter (though make no mistake, there are representatives of Team Blue that were right in the middle of the salad from the beginning, and for some odd reason, seem to not get nearly enough time in the spotlight as a result). But Obama's insistence on pushing things through like ObamaCare at this juncture didn't help matters.

    But I do applaud Flake for being willing to point fingers at his own party and take some responsibility. Otherwise, every politician in Washington, regardless of affiliation, only seems interested in telling you how the *other* party is responsible for . I'd love to see both persuasions taking a "buck stops here" attitude about the mess.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Some pols, like Flake and a few others, are starting to sound like sane adults -- Ron Paul is not all alone anymore.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    From the looks of it, there will be a team red sweep this time. Obama is proving to be a bigger anchor around the neck of his own party than shrub ever was. GWB was a disaster, but in comparison to 'the one' I'll take the stutterer in chief.

    The senate is going red, possibly all the way to 60. The question then is, "How bad will that be when coupled with a Perry or a Romney in the WH?"

    Any chance in hell the 'Reds' got religion on the spending? Or is that bright shiney bit of pork ...

  • MWG||

    Hmmm... Flake is backing Romney for president. How did reason fail to mention this?


  • Colonel_Angus||

    "Flake has taken a pro-immigration, pro-trade, anti-spending, limited-government path that contrasts sharply with the GOP mainstream."


  • Pedant||

    Dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) and Schizophrenia (wide range of bonkers sometimes including things like auditory hallucinations, paranoia or bizarre delusions) are often confused, but they are very different.

  • Melly||

    Thank you. I was coming in here to say the same thing. I work with people with severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and the common usage of "schizophrenic" drives me crazy. (Har, har.)

    It's not about being PC (although as someone who works with these folks daily and sees how debilitating these illnesses are, I will admit that it is a sensitive spot for me and does bother me a bit on a personal level), it's about it being totally inaccurate.

  • ||

    Sadly, Jeff Flake, one of my favorite Conservative Congressmen, just endorsed Romney for the GOP nomination. This puts a stain on everything Mr. Flake stands for. It is a clear example of his Morman faith trumping his political philosophy. That is sad.

  • Yet another Dave||

    I'm reading negativity about Flake's endorsement of Mitt Romney. Is that because there's something specific that all of you don't like about Romney, or is it strictly because it appears to be based on their shared faith and not because he actually supports the guy politically?

  • Johnny Clamboat||

    The objectionable traits of Mitt are too numerous to list here.

  • really?||

    How about just a "Top 10" or even just "Top 5" list?

  • ||

    Yes another Dave:
    The endorsement of Romney is indeed troubling. It is as you perceive based on their shared Faith and not on political philosophy. That compromises Flake. Romney represents the Eastern, accomodationist wing of the GOP which has opposed the Conservative movement from its beginning.

    It was Romney senior who, along with Rockefeller helped torpedo Goldwater in 1964. Mitt is simply a continuation of the establishment wing of the GOP we have too often followed to defeat.

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