Flake: Past Spending Limits Haven't Worked

Robert Siegel interviews Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, about the debt ceiling negotiations. He tells Robert the inclusion of a balanced-budget amendment helped win his support for House Speaker John Boehner's revised debt plan.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Representative Jeff Flake is an Arizona Republican. Until today, he was not in favor of Speaker Boehner's plan, and then late this morning, he tweeted as follows: "Good news. Looks like Boehner bill will now include BBA. Now, it cuts, it caps, it balances. If so, I'm for it." BBA is balanced budget amendment. Representative Flake joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome, once again.

JEFF FLAKE: Hey, thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: Why is the balanced budget amendment so important to you?

FLAKE: Well, we've got to have some mechanism for the long term to make sure that we don't get in this situation again or in perpetuity. It seems that we're here every couple of years with more frequency now because we're spending at a faster rate.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowery, the editor of the Conservative National Review dismisses the balanced budget amendment as window dressing and he writes this: "The dirty secret of the debt debate is this, even many House GOP purists prefer the symbolism of the balanced budget amendment to voting on any entitlement cuts again." Does he have it right?

FLAKE: Well, the problem is that too few people here are willing to vote against any spending. Some of us don't vote for enough spending to justify a debt limit increase, but still we get in this situation because no matter what you do, no matter how many statutory spending caps you have, ultimately, we in Congress simply wave them and ignore them. So we need something that holds us to it, so it isn't statutory.

SIEGEL: But isn't the point here that entitlement spending, mostly Medicare and Medicaid, is what's driving federal spending the most. And the balanced budget amendment is a way of cutting those programs in the future and saying, I didn't want to do this, but the balanced budget amendment made me do it.

FLAKE: You know, that's what counts for courage around here, most definitely. And I'm willing to take it. If we can't have the courage to tell our constituents, hey, we've got to cut back, then if we can point to something and say, I would like to vote for more benefits for you, but this balanced budget amendment or statutory spending cap or whatever the device is, is preventing me from doing it. Hey, that's better than keeping us in the pickle we're in.

SIEGEL: Let's assume that whatever comes back to you from the Senate doesn't have a balanced budget amendment provision and doesn't have a - just a very short term agreement. Is that a deal breaker for you?

FLAKE: Yeah, it is a deal breaker. You've got to have something long term to do this.

SIEGEL: Well, what happens then? Does a compromise bill come back from the Senate and get passed with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes? Is that how this ends next week?

FLAKE: Perhaps. Let me just tell you, for myself, I would just take the Reid bill in its entirety, just add the balanced budget amendment. And I wouldn't even insist on the balanced budget amendment that I like, the ones with super majority requirements or - I would just say a plain, vanilla balanced budget amendment. So...

SIEGEL: Although - you say a plain, vanilla - I mean, constitutional amendments aren't a plain vanilla, usually. They come around once every couple of decades and it's not a rider to build a new highway somewhere. It's a pretty big deal.

FLAKE: Well, what I'm referring to is - when I say plain vanilla, I'm saying one that simply says that revenue - or expenditures should not outpace revenue.

SIEGEL: Is there some time in the future, in the not too distance future, when, in order to achieve a compromise, you have to sign onto something that asks the upper income Americans to kick in more?

FLAKE: There are some Republicans who say that any time you raise new revenue, you have to have a tax cut to match it. I am not one of those Republicans. I think that we should - and a number of us - in fact, I think the Republican House has already passed legislation to the effect that would lower the overall rate, but close loopholes, get rid of exemptions and credits, which would raise revenue.

SIEGEL: Congressman Flake, before you go, I just want you to tell us a little bit about life in the House of Representatives over the past 48 hours or so. You were in with the Speaker yesterday and you emerged telling people, he's not as tough as Tom Delay used to be. What does your arm look like today?

FLAKE: Well, you know, he's kind of a soft touch. What is remarkable now in this new era in the House is without earmarks, there isn't the ability of a speaker or others to promise goodies. A negotiation like that that happened yesterday would have left us a couple of billion dollars poorer. But not yesterday. I mean, a couple of stale pieces of pizza and you're there.

SIEGEL: Okay. Congressman Flake, thank you very much.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: That's Jeff Flake, Republican congressman from the sixth district of Arizona.

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