The Pruner

But for Jeff Flake, a three-term congressman from Arizona, the moment was an opportunity and a bittersweet vindication. He later told me that for years he had worried about the entrenched spoils system that DeLay epitomized, warning his colleagues: “We’ve got to change our ways, or this stuff is going to come back and bite us.” And sure enough, DeLay’s troubles were tainting the two hundred and some House Republicans not being investigated.

Seeing that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was stalling and unconvinced that DeLay would make the responsible decision himself to step down from his leadership post, Flake forced the Hammer’s hand. With his moderate colleague Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), he circulated a petition that would require the Republican caucus to hold elections to select new leaders.

It was a risky move. At the time, most congressional Republicans were still sticking to the talking point–if no longer the sure belief–that DeLay would beat the charges. But underneath the surface was a well of panic waiting to be tapped. The petition got the 50 signatures it needed within a matter of hours. His first mission accomplished, Flake immediately began promoting his fellow Arizonan, Rep. John Shadegg, as a replacement for DeLay. He had stickers made up that read “SHADEGG=REFORM,” and passed them out around the Capitol as if he was managing a student council race. In the end, Shadegg didn’t make it past the first round of voting. But the eventual winner, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), triumphed only after promising Flake and other reform-minded conservatives that he would push for institutional changes in the House.

Once again, a Republican from Arizona is making life difficult for his colleagues, marching to his own drummer. Flake, a self-described paleo-conservative (“I prefer that to neoconservative, anyway,” he told me) has been a thorn in the side of the GOP leadership since he was elected to Congress in 2000. He has taken unpopular stands on subsidies (working with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to fight a bailout for the tobacco industry), immigration (joining with liberals to support a guest-worker program), and lobbying reform (voting against the recent GOP effort to go after 527s). Under the old GOP reign, such heresies would have earned a congressman swift exile. Over the past few months, however, Flake has seen his profile steadily rise. Boehner singled him out for praise in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about reform, columnists John Tierney and George Will have written approvingly of him, and Flake scored an op-ed of his own in The New York Times earlier this year. More surprisingly, Flake has won admirers on the other side of the aisle, earning points for honesty from the likes of Barney Frank and Henry Waxman.

The similarities with another maverick, Flake’s senior senator John McCain, are apparent. But McCain, like Barry Goldwater before him, has always been something of a loner. What makes Flake interesting is that he seems to be part of a group of conservative Republicans who have been pushing the House leadership toward more radical reform–back, they would say, to the vision of the 1994 revolutionaries. His current crusade, eliminating the anonymous spending measures called “earmarks” that are tacked onto bills and reports, has become a cause celebre among pork-hating legislators. And Flake has become a leading member of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), which now comprises more than 100 representatives. When Jeff Flake leads a revolt, he brings more than camera crews in his wake. And that may make it impossible for the GOP leadership–and the White House–to ignore him.

Flake’s forebears were Mormon missionaries dispatched by Brigham Young in the late 19th century to scout and establish a settlement in Arizona for the pioneers who would follow behind them. William Jordan Flake and Erastus Snow founded the town of Snowflake where, nearly a century later, Flake grew up on a cattle ranch as the fifth of 11 children.

In early March, I visited Flake in Mesa, one of the rapidly growing suburbs that make up his district east of Phoenix and several hours south of Snowflake. His one-story ranch house is at the end of a dusty street in a sunbleached gated development; it is surrounded for miles around by nothing but orange groves; trailer parks, other developments, and churches, including the nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Flake, his wife, and their five children worship.

A tall, ruggedly handsome man with thick arms and broad shoulders, Flake was busy pruning a tree in his front yard with a manual wood saw when I arrived. He may not be literally settling territory the way his ancestors did, but Flake does act as an advance scout for many of his colleagues, testing out controversial positions and letting them linger behind until they’re sure it’s safe to join him. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) describes Flake as “the Mikey of the Republican Study Committee,” referring to the up-for-anything young star of old Life cereal commercials. “Any time there’s a tough or uncertain mission, call Flake. He’ll try it.”

Flake’s mission now, as he outlines it to me, is nothing less than the dismantling of DeLay-ism, the spoils system by which the former majority leader achieved and retained power. “The Republican leadership basically said, ‘We can’t pretend to be small government conservatives anymore; let’s just use the levers of power,'” Flake says as we talk inside. “That’s been the M.O. to win elections–redistricting and passing out pork. That’s hardly a model for the future.”

As Flake sees it, the first step in returning his party to its conservative roots is to reform Congress by making it more difficult for politicians to slip pork projects into budget bills. “In 1994, Republicans ridiculed Democrats for earmarks, and justifiably so,” he reminded me. “But we’ve taken it to a new level and made it far, far worse.” That new level includes using earmarks to “convince” members to change their votes on key measures and to dole out favors to lobbyists in a way that is virtually untraceable.

Although his current proposal is just a first step to strip earmarks of their anonymity, requiring representatives to be identified with the funding they request, Flake would like to do away with the practice completely. That is not, it’s safe to say, a majority opinion in the Republican caucus. “I was at a meeting on earmark reform a few weeks ago,” he said, “and someone asked the question whether there’s a constitutional right to earmarks.” Shaking his head in disgust, Flake continued. “Most of the Republican caucus was saying, ‘Yes.’ And then someone said, Well what do we do with the Democrats who oppose our earmarks? The answer was, cut them off, of course. So I guess you only have a constitutional right to earmarks if you’re a Republican. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen.”

It’s worth noting that earmark reform, though worthy, wouldn’t by itself get to the heart of Washington’s corruption problem. Earmarks are particularly offensive to small-government conservatives, but they don’t play much of a role in sustaining the central dynamic of the Republican Congress : the outsized influence of corporate lobbyists on policy-making as manifested in the Abramoff, and, more openly, in the K Street Project.

Still, it’s hard to overstate the extent to which politicians on both sides of the aisle have come to see earmarks as their privilege, or even a necessary part of the job, another form of fundraising. A Republican who crusades to eliminate this perk, and who defends the rights of Democrats in the process, isn’t setting himself up to make friends. Yet Flake’s commitment to the cause has made him a hero to fiscal conservatives. Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) calls Flake “almost rabid in his passion for reform,” with obvious admiration. Whenever Flake stands up on the House floor, at least a few members hoot out “earmarks!”

Far from avoiding confrontation, Flake seems to revel in taking the fight to the big dogs in the Republican leadership. Last fall, he went after a pet project of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the famous $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” that would connect a small town in Alaska to a tiny island. Despite the hot-tempered senator’s threat that he would resign from the Senate unless he got his bridge, fiscal conservatives succeeded in killing the project. According to Roll Call, the RSC celebrated by screening a key scene from the movie The Bridge On the River Kwai, in which the bridge is blown up. “It’s Jeff Flake!” yelled one of the RSC members as Alec Guinness’s character detonated the explosives. “It’s Don Young [the Alaskan congressman] shooting at me!” Flake shouted back to a roomful of laughter.

But while his reform agenda has burnished Flake’s reputation in an unusual way for such a junior congressman, it has also made him a more visible target, particularly in election years. In an era when incumbents, especially Republicans, often run unopposed, Flake faced a bitter primary in 2004. His opponent won the endorsement not only of Mesa’s Associated General Contractors, but also of Flake’s own mayor by arguing that Flake, who refuses to request earmarks for his district, wasn’t bringing home the bacon. “That’s how the game is played,” Flake told me. “But when it came to the voters, they said, ‘You go ahead, Flake.'”

When we met in March, Flake was once again worried about the prospect of a primary challenger. But the fact that he’s even running for re-election is causing problems for him with some conservatives. When he first campaigned for Congress in 2000, Flake pledged to limit himself to three terms, even though term limits were already falling out of fashion by that point. National Review writer John Miller wrote recently that while he admires Flake, “it is troubling to learn that he is now breaking a promise to serve no more than three terms…. A year from now, I’ll probably be glad that Rep. Flake is still hanging around D.C.–but I’ll also think a little less of him.”

Indeed, while it is his commitment to conservative principles that wins Flake praise across the political spectrum (Barney Frank calls him one of the few “intellectually honest conservatives” and Henry Waxman labels him “a man of principle”), Flake’s critics argue that he is willing to quickly abandon his otherwise widely-touted principles when the moment suits him. On the term-limit issue, Flake says the importance of that movement has “just petered out.” Last year, he was part of a bipartisan group opposing the Patriot Act renewal, on the grounds that it threatened civil liberties. After working closely with, among others, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Flake suddenly gave up the fight, according to Rohrabacher. It was widely suspected that he’d cut a deal with the administration. “He can be inspiring or exasperating, based on whether he’s being true to his principles or not,” says Rohrabacher. Flake insists that he did what he could on the Patriot Act, and managed to move the administration on key provisions.

Still, it was Flake and his merry band of fiscal conservatives who once again tied up the House in April, staging a showdown with pro-earmark House appropriators. Forcing the majority leader to choose between the two sides, Flake asked Boehner to guarantee that his earmark provision would not be touched. In the end, Boehner remembered those who helped his rise to power. Flake got his wish and the powerful committee members were reduced to spinning their defeat as a “compromise.”

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James Verini

James Verini is a writer in New York and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.