'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?

Flake: That's one great success we've had over the past few years. Earmarks represent only a small part of the budget, but they affect the larger budget in ways that people simply don't see. When you have an earmark in a bill, then you tend to support that bill, no matter how bloated it becomes. And the horse trading, logrolling that goes on with earmarks tends to bloat the entire government. You get caught up in it, as we did as Republicans, and it's tough to get away from.

But we have. Earlier this year when we passed H.R. 1, the big continuing resolution, there were no earmarks in that bill. None. And because there were none, people actually went to the House floor and won votes on spending cuts. Like 49 amendments were passed that actually cut spending. That would have been unheard of just a few years ago. It only happened because there was no logrolling, there was no appropriator looking at you saying that if you take this one down, your earmark will be taken out in conference.

reason: Are there other things you can do to cut back on the abuses?

Flake: I'm now on the appropriations committee, and it's a bit of a lonely experience there, but we do what we can in ways that will raise some of these issues publicly. For example, within the farm bill, we've passed massive subsidies for cotton. And we subsidize cotton to the extent that we run afoul of our own international trade agreements. Brazil sued in the WTO and won. And so instead of cutting down our own subsidies to our own cotton farmers, we've told Brazil, "We'll pay you to subsidize your cotton if you don't pursue the case." And so for the past couple of years, and for the next few, we'll be paying about $150 million a year to Brazil to subsidize their cotton, so we can subsidize our own. A few other members and I decided to remove that subsidy in committee, and we were able to do that because it's difficult to defend that publicly.

When it got to the floor they removed my amendment that removed the subsidy. And so we had to do it again on the floor but we were able to. We'll see how far that goes, because obviously this is just the House version; you've got to have the Senate agree. But for every individual who uses the rules to cut spending, you'll have those individuals using those same rules to put spending back. So it's a bit of a shell game.

reason: Speaking of trade, you've been a big proponent of free trade with Cuba. Has the Obama administration taken us a little bit forward on Cuba policy?

Flake: They have. I was able to pass legislation early in my career in Washington to prohibit funding for enforcing the travel ban. And that's what I've been mostly concerned about, the travel ban. I always thought that just is silly. The whole trade embargo was silly, frankly, but the travel ban chief among it. I could never get President Bush to sign that kind of legislation, so twice it was removed before he would sign it. But President Obama has liberalized the travel requirements, and so Cuban Americans, for example, can travel at will, as much as they want. So you have some 300,000–400,000 visits to Cuba just in the past year, mostly Cuban Americans.

That's a good thing. That's a great thing. To the extent that it's possible in a communist system, more Cubans now are living kind of outside the state, if you will, and being more economically independent than they were before. But we still don't have the ability of the average American to just pick up and say, "I want to travel to Cuba." You have to get a license, either a religious license or a humanitarian license, an educational license. It just doesn't make any sense at all. These prohibitions, these sanctions, are not on Cuba. They're on Americans. And that's what makes it so strange.

We have all this talk today about whether the Republican Party is becoming more isolationist because a lot of Republicans don't want to intervene in Libya. And I always say, "Who's isolationist here? Who wants to prohibit Americans from traveling to Cuba, for crying out loud?" But you know, if we lifted our restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, the next day, I'm quite confident that the Castro regime would impose some of its own restrictions. Because while they want the revenue, they don't want the influence that comes with travel. But if somebody's going to limit my travel, it should be a communist, not my own government. That's how I feel.

reason: Something else that happened during the long period of Republican ascendency was the PATRIOT Act. We've gone through many different sunset revisions over and over, and everything seems to keep coming back. Do we have any hope of whittling back the PATRIOT Act in a serious way?

Flake: We have in some ways. When the initial proposal came from the Bush administration, a lot of us—myself, Ron Paul, Bobby Scott, Bob Barr—sat down and said, "What do we really need, and what can we take away?" Of some 50 proposals, we whittled it down to less than 20. And so we made some headway from the beginning. And then the provisions that were troublesome, we sunsetted, and so we've revisited them a few times since.

I still have misgivings about some of the things related to the PATRIOT ACT—the national security letters, for example, that just allow government to get information from businesses without required warrants. I had trouble with the library provision, for example, and access to public records that individuals get. So I inserted language or added amendments during the last sunset that move that up the chain, that would require the director of the FBI to sign off personally on these things.

So we've been able to attach some amendments and some protections as we've gone along. And we've been able to sunset these provisions and we revisit them. It's an uneasy balance. When you meet with the intelligence community, they'll certainly tell you that some of these provisions have been very useful. And have maybe kept us safe in certain situations. It's difficult to talk about some of those publicly.

But it will always be a balancing act, balancing civil liberties with the tools that they need. I have been convinced over the years that the administration, whether it's Republican or Democrat, will always seek the maximum number of tools, and it's up to Congress to go in and ensure that civil liberties are protected. Perhaps we can do a little better job.

reason: When you're meeting with security types and they're making the case of how such-and-such a plot unraveled, how much of that is backed up by evidence and how much is "take our word for it"?

Flake: You have some of both, but some of it can be backed up. Some of it, for example these library provisions, you can actually ask them how many times this power was invoked. And they have to tell you. There's always a possibility that they don't tell you everything that they're required to, but I guess you just have to assume that they will.

You don't know if simply the deterrent value of the ability to track all mobile devices or to have roving wiretaps or other things keeps people who would do us harm from doing so. That's difficult to quantify. But you have a lot of members of Congress who take this very seriously and are pushing. I've been in those meetings. I've heard the questions that are asked. Some have been uncomfortable for those in the intelligence community.

reason: You mentioned isolationism. How much of the issue here is that there's a new administration and there's noninterventionism of convenience, and how much of what we are talking about is defining isolationism down? At this point if you don't want to have an undeclared, open-ended bombing campaign against a country that hasn't done anything to us at least since 1989, that makes you an isolationist.

Flake: I think it's the latter. I think we've defined it a different way. We always invoke Ronald Reagan as a great man who understood that you need to be engaged internationally. He did, but he also pulled out of Lebanon when he realized that our presence there was simply putting ourselves in danger and that the benefits weren't great enough. So I think it's been defined differently now. I don't consider myself an isolationist at all, but I don't think it was right for us to engage in Libya. I don't think that the benefits outweigh the cost. I don't think that makes me an isolationist. 

reason: You're running for the Senate.

Flake: Yes.

reason: That's the big house. What do you think of the two senators that Arizona has right now?

Flake: I am a politician; I'm never going to say that. Let me just say that with regard to John Kyl, whom I hope to replace, to watch him stand up and retire with his wife standing by his side and without a scandal—he's provided what I consider stellar service over a couple of decades, and he's at the top of his game as well, in terms of power and influence. To see somebody like that just walk away while people are still applauding —it doesn't happen often in Washington. And so I'm sorry to see him go, but open Senate seats in Arizona come along with the frequency of Haley's Comet. Arizona has been a state for 100 years now, or just shy of 100, and we've only had 12 U.S. senators. So the stars were aligned as well as they could be.

reason: Can we talk a little bit about the legacy of Barry Goldwater, and to what degree current Arizona politics, and current Republican politics nationwide, are infused with a Goldwater spirit?

Flake: Well, certainly Arizona is. I grew up in northern Arizona, rural Arizona, in the town of Snowflake. And there is kind of a libertarian, limited-government, independent streak that runs through Arizona, certainly through rural Arizona and old Arizona. And I think Arizona politics is still to some extent defined by that.

reason: Late in Goldwater's career, when he sort of went liberal on some issues—equal treatment of gays and lesbians and so forth—that was viewed as a shift in his thinking. Did that really reveal a shift in his thinking, or was it a shift that had occurred in the Republican Party?

Flake: I think that there was some of both. Some of his positions you could ascribe simply to traditional conservatism, or classical liberalism. There were a few nuances that were a direct difference from an opinion or position that he had held previously. But by and large, he was still defined as a man that believes in limited government, economic freedom, individual liberty.

reason: Immigration figures heavily in Arizona politics. What's going on there? Why is Arizona different from New Mexico or Texas or Southern California even?

Flake: I grew up on a ranch and a farm. We used labor from Mexico and south of the border. But at that time, typically, people would come work in Arizona, return home for the seasons, for birthdays, for anniversaries, whatever, because they could. And it was a circular pattern of migration.

Over the past couple of decades, that circular pattern has become a settled pattern, where people cross once, bring their families, and stay, and those costs are borne by Arizonans. And we feel the brunt of it more than the federal government does, because we pay a big share of the costs.

The nature of the border itself has changed as well. This is a more recent phenomenon, just over the past few years. It used to be that it was the exception to the rule if somebody crossing the border was involved in drug smuggling or human smuggling. Virtually all of them were coming across to do work in the fields or in the hospitality industry or construction industry. But now, because it's so expensive and dangerous to cross the border, virtually everyone who crosses hires a human smuggler. And because it's so expensive, an increasing number have to carry drugs to lessen the cost of their passage, and so the border has become much more dangerous. You've had a rancher killed there last year, and you have armed convoys coming across the border often in the rural areas.

So the net effect down near the border, for the landholders and others, has just been a big change, and that's reflected in politics as well. Ultimately you'll need a comprehensive solution to this problem that has a temporary worker plan and some mechanism to deal with those who are here illegally and interior enforcement. Until we get better security on the border, nobody is going to trust the federal government to move ahead on any of the other items.

reason: Why does it never occur to anybody that the border becomes less secure the more it's policed? As the border has become harder to get across, that has actually stopped the circular migration that you were just talking about.

Flake: I've always felt that the best way to secure the border is to have a legal framework for people to come and go, and then your resources can be deployed against those who are doing nefarious things on the border. If we could return to a time, like when I grew up, where there was that circular pattern, that would be one thing. But I think with the threats today, with terrorism and whatever else, I just don't think that we could return there. To have an open border like that just does not make sense for our security.

reason: You grew up in northern Arizona in a place where the Mormon Church was very active, and you're one of the Mormons serving in office. We're in an interesting presidential field right now where we have a record number of Mormons and a record number of small-government conservatives running. So how does that fit in? Has that ever affected your own career?

Flake: No. I mean, from Arizona, there have been a number of Mormon legislators at the state level who are well-respected individuals, and I've been fortunate to follow in their footsteps. And Arizona has a greater percentage of Mormons than a lot of states. Nationwide, looking at the situation, it may not be a plus right now in some Southern states to be a Mormon candidate. But I don't think it's a disqualifier anywhere. The fact that you have Harry Reid, a very prominent Democrat Mormon, on one side, and Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and others on the other side, it lets people know that there's little to fear there.

reason: Is the issue overblown?

Flake: Yes. I think so. Somebody pointed out that there was recent poll that says there's still about 25 percent of the population that's uncomfortable voting for a Mormon. But it's also been pointed out that that figure was higher for those who felt uncomfortable voting for a Catholic just prior to John F. Kennedy's election. So I'm not sure those polls capture the real feelings. And particularly in a year like this with the economy so poor, if you have somebody who is a great candidate in every other respect, I think a lot of people worry less about where they go to church.

reason: Could you talk a little about the role of religion in public life and how it informs your own thinking? Certainly it always seemed like Orrin Hatch was somebody who was often off the reservation with the Republicans  in being a little more tolerant on religious issues. And it seemed to me that was specifically because you're coming from a place where everybody views your own belief as something odd. And you kind of internalize that.

Flake: I don't know. I think that everyone's religion informs their values, and it's difficult to decide where one ends and the other begins without getting into somebody's head or their heart. So I don't know how to answer that. My own religion, I assume like everyone else's, does inform my values, but I don't think in a way that makes anyone uncomfortable. I've not faced any incidents where people have been uncomfortable that way. 

reason: While you're going ahead with the Senate run, your own seat is hotly contested. What do you think we will be looking at in the complexion of the House and the Senate over the next couple of years?

 Flake: We have a good opportunity as Republicans now. The Democrats had a very good year in 2006, both in the House and the Senate. In the Senate that means they have a lot of seats to defend in 2012. In fact, 23 of the 33 seats in play are Democrat seats. So I think we just need a net pick-up of four as Republicans, and I think we can do it. And I think we're going to need to. When you look at the challenges this country is facing, many of them won't be solved just by putting a Republican in the White House. We really need a Republican Senate as well. And I speak specifically about regulations of the federal agencies.

These agencies are out of control. Whether it's the EPA, whether it's financial regulations, these agencies just moving as if they need no congressional authority. When you look at things that stifle the economy, it's not just tax rates; it's regulation. We've got to get a handle on that. And so whether or not we have a Republican in the White House, if we can control the House and the Senate, we can have a huge impact on where these agencies go, what they regulate, what they don't. And that's what this economy really needs. 

reason: What do you think of the argument that divided government is the friend of people who don't want the government to keep growing?

Flake: That's it. If you look back in history, divided government has been good government, if you want limited government. And I think you can find more instances of that than unified government, if you will, producing that outcome. So yeah, I think that when you look at the '90s, for example, we started to balance budgets, we had a good period of free trade and good economics, without having a Republican in the White House. We can do that again.

I'm going to try to control every chamber, and I hope we behave differently next time. But divided government is very often good government.