Rep. Flake On Cutting Congressional Pork

Arizona Congressman Is A Fierce Opponent Of Earmarks

To Democrat Jose Serrano of New York, it was bad enough when Flake challenged $150,000 to fix the plumbing and wiring at some Italian markets in the Bronx.

"I would argue this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn't want to take a bite of," Flake told his fellow lawmakers.

But when Flake tried to cut $300,000 for the Bronx Council on the Arts, Serrano gave him the old Bronx cheer. "The more you get up on these, Sir, the more I realize that you do not know what you are talking about. I make no excuses about the fact that I earmark dollars to go in the poorest congressional district in the nation, which is situated in the richest city on earth," Serrano said, addressing Flake.

There were already some 13,000 earmarks this year alone, compared to only 4,000 12 years ago. And it's no accident that the explosive growth in earmarks parallels the explosive growth of lobbyists in Washington.

"Many of the earmark request forms are actually filled out by lobbyists and then just turned in by the member's staff to the appropriations committee," Flake explains.

"And a good part of the time, as you say, it's just rubber stamped by the congressmen?" Safer asks.

"Yes. Unfortunately, yes," Rep. Flake replies.

"And he's got his hand out for some campaign contributions? Correct?" Safer asks.

"Well, yes," Flake says. "Many times the same lobbyists who are requesting these earmarks will then host fundraisers for a member of Congress."

In the House, Flake reminded his colleagues of one lobbyist they'd just as soon forget. "Jack Abramoff reportedly referred to the appropriations committee as an 'earmark favor factory,'" he said.

Abramoff pled guilty to fraud and corruption.

And there's Randy Cunningham, the Republican congressman from California who did that increasingly popular dance, the perp walk, right into jail for taking bribes from defense contractors.

Basically, Flake accused him of selling earmarks. "He was. In fact, they found papers where he had listed how much he'd demanded for each earmark," he explains.

"Without naming names, do you think there're other people still in the Congress who are doing that to one degree or another?" Safer asks.

"To one degree or another, yes. I don't believe there are any as blatant as Randy Cunningham was," Flake says.

So who is this Don Quixote, tilting at his colleagues' windmills? Jeff Flake grew up in Snowflake, Ariz. A town named for two Mormon pioneers: Erastus Snow and Jeff's great-great grandfather Bill Flake.

"He grew up as a cowboy. He knows how to ride horses," says the congressman's uncle Jeff Flake. He says the cowboy life taught Jeff some skills he'd find handy as a politician.

"He knows how to round up cattle and knows how to stay out of their way. And knows how to get in and mix it up with them when he needs to," his uncle explains.

And if there's a certain missionary zeal in Jeff Flake, it's no accident. In the Mormon tradition, as a young man, he did missionary work in Africa.

Asked if the few years he spent as a missionary shaped him in any ways as a politician, Flake says, "Yes. For one, I think as a missionary you gotta be stubborn. And you gotta try to be persuasive."

He represents a fast-growing Sunbelt state that ironically owes its modern existence to the billions in federal dollars spent to move water from the Colorado River to the cities. It's a fact his opponents often remind him of; Flake counters that the central Arizona water project wasn't an earmark, and was openly debated.

"The truth is I don't think there was any project that was under more scrutiny, that took more years of authorization and debates, and open debates. Nothing in secrecy. And that's how it should be," he argues.