Congressman Jeff Flake is a fifth-term Republican representing Arizona’s 6th congressional district. He is a leading opponent of wasteful government spending.
TAS: How is life in the minority?
Congressman Flake: It’s not much fun. Last Congress, even though Democrats controlled Congress, President Bush made it difficult for them to do too much damage. With that backstop gone now, it’s been pretty ugly. But being so deep in the minority has freed Republicans to vote more on principle. I think you saw that with every House Republican voting against the stimulus.
TAS: Even though a minority party in the House has very little leeway compared to a Senate minority, it is an opportunity for reflection and policy innovation. The Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, proposed while Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, later became the centerpiece of the Reagan economic program. What are some similar examples of new ideas coming from the Republican minority today?
Congressman Flake: House Republicans are definitely in a period of reflection now, and I hope it leads to some policy innovation. Former Republican Leader Dick Armey was able to pass legislation establishing the BRAC process during the ’80s when Republicans were in the minority. So I think if you have good bill and are persistent, you can move meaningful legislation.
TAS: After voting for a lot of big-ticket spending items under President Bush, House Republicans were unanimous in their opposition to President Obama’s stimulus plan. Then we read Republicans also requested upwards of 40 percent of the earmarks in the recently-signed omnibus spending bill. Have they gotten the message on spending yet?
Congressman Flake: No, not yet. Clearly, taxpayers were outraged by the pork in the omnibus, but Republicans couldn’t get any traction on it because Democrats were able to turn around and say that 40% of the earmarks in the bill were Republican earmarks. You would hope that our leadership took note of that and will push for an earmark moratorium, even if it’s just for Republicans. But they’re not there yet.
TAS: How close are we to the tipping point toward European-style social democracy, which would be difficult or impossible to reverse?
Congressman Flake: Fortunately, at this point taxpayers seem to be an unwilling participant in these bailouts. I do worry that when the crisis is over, the federal government will be reluctant to give up the power they have over the financial industry. But, fundamentally, I think Americans believe that the free market works.
TAS: In the 1990s, Republicans helped beat back an attempt to nationalize health care while still in the minority. But at that time, the business community was opposed to the plan on the table, many doctors opposed the plan as well, and the Clinton administration made serious political misjudgments. Today, many businesses and entrepreneurs want relief from health insurance costs, doctors want to make sure they are compensated, and the current president probably won’t ask Michelle Obama to write his health care plan. What is the Republican game plan on health care reform?
Congressman Flake: Republicans have got to be ready with serious, substantive alternatives on healthcare. For good reason, Americans are naturally skeptical about the federal government’s ability to manage a national healthcare program. So Republicans have an advantage in that Americans are more inclined to support market-based healthcare reforms. We can’t just offer gimmicky alternatives, and we need to articulate our proposals. Fortunately, House Republicans have guys like Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. John Shadegg who have been working on healthcare proposals for years.
TAS: Some commentators on the right argue that the economic crisis makes some accommodation with big government inevitable, while others claim that government played a significant role in the meltdown. Who is right?
Congressman Flake: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the federal government played a large role in this mess. Implicit, and eventually explicit, federal guarantees in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shielded the financial services sector from market discipline. The various bailouts have prevented the market from reaching its natural bottom.
TAS: On a similar note, is the era of tax cuts over? Some early supply-siders like Bruce Bartlett now say so.
Congressman Flake: I don’t think we can expect any meaningful tax cuts during the Obama Administration, but I don’t believe the era of tax cuts is over. The stimulus bill passed by the Democrats in Congress and signed into law by President Obama will not stimulate the economy, and Democrats are already laying the groundwork for a second stimulus. Republicans need to continue to make the case for tax cuts as a way to spur economic growth.
TAS: What is the biggest mistake the Republicans made in the last eight years?
Congressman Flake: So many to choose from — the farm bill, the highway bill, all of the spending bills. In terms of sheer size, it’s difficult to argue that we made a bigger mistake than the Medicare prescription drug entitlement. It could end up costing over a trillion dollars. All to buy off the senior vote for an election cycle.
TAS: What is the biggest thing Republicans got right in the last eight years for which they don’t receive enough credit?
Congressman Flake: I think President Bush’s trade policy has been underappreciated. Aside from a hiccup on steel tariffs early on, President Bush was a consistent proponent of free trade. Hopefully, a lot of the protectionist rhetoric that President Obama used on the campaign trail last year was just that — rhetoric.
TAS: What coalition-building, if any, exists with the so-called Blue Dog Democrats?
Congressman Flake: There could be some opportunities with the Blue Dogs. Many Blue Dogs, especially guys like Rep. Jim Cooper, have a genuine concern about the level of spending and the future sustainability of entitlements. Unfortunately, Speaker Pelosi rules the Democratic Caucus with an iron fist, and the Blue Dogs have yet to really exert themselves.