On the Ideological and Practical Differences Between Tea Partiers and Congressional Republicans

In response to a request by Leigh, the Liberal Ironist is offering a collective policy contrast of the Tea Party freshmen with most incumbent Congressional Republicans.

Philosophically, the Tea Party movement only seems to center around conventional but strict positions of market economics and Federalism.  That would put them in philosophical agreement with the pre- or post-George W. Bush Congressional Republicans.  In terms of *practical* differences on these issues, that’s a matter to be decided between House and Senate Republican leadership–and in an upcoming post I’ll address why their interests may not converge.  Tea Party activists and their supporters are trying to ride this crest by claiming they will be “watching” to make sure Congressional Republicans act on their agenda, but so far one Tea Party convert currently in Congress–Michele Bachmann of Minnesota–has apparently been rebuffed in her bid to jump over Jeb Hensarling–who was instrumental in the Republican effort to take back the House–to become the next GOP Conference Chair.  That said, the practical difference between the Tea Party freshmen and incumbent Congressional Republicans is essentially that the former are definitely more uncompromising on the plank issues of concern to them; ironically, though, the Tea Partiers could turn out to be less-interested in scoring partisan points if the President makes policy concessions compatible with their substantive goals.

I will address the near-silence of Tea Partiers on social issues and foreign policy in an upcoming post.

Maybe it would help to compare the insurgent Tea Partiers’ “Contract from America” with the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America,” which the Liberal Ironist has discussed elsewhere.  Since the “Contract” is a actually simpler document with a few more-radical commitments, I’ll address how Mr. Boehner’s “Pledge” fares on its 10 provisions:

1. “Identify constitutionality of every new law: Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does (82.03%).”

Same as in the “Pledge.”

2. “Reject emissions trading: Stop the “cap and trade” administrative approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants. (72.20%).”

Same as in the “Pledge.”

3. “Demand a balanced federal budget: Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax modification. (69.69%)”

Neither of these 2 items are in the “Pledge,” which is just as well because in combination they simply aren’t going to happen.  The “Pledge” claims that “(w)ith common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt” (emphasis added).   Getting on a path to balance the budget is not balancing the budget.

4. “Simplify the tax system: Adopt a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words – the length of the original Constitution. (64.9%)”

A call for a “simple fair single-rate tax system” is probably a call for either a 17% (or less) flat income tax or a 23% national sales tax.  This appeals to many people for its simplicity and proportionality–though it obviously means far lower overall tax rates on the rich.  There is no mention of tax reform in the “Pledge.”

5. “Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality: Create a Blue Ribbon taskforce that engages in an audit of federal agencies and programs, assessing their Constitutionality, and identifying duplication, waste, ineffectiveness, and agencies and programs better left for the states or local authorities. (63.37%)”

The “Pledge” calls for an audit of Federal programs to identify duplication, waste and ineffectiveness–but not to determine a program’s Constitutionality.  This indicates Republicans’ pragmatic acceptance of the 20th century’s policy departures from a strict constructionist view of the Constitution.

6. “Limit annual growth in federal spending: Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth. (56.57%).”

The “Pledge” calls for “a hard cap on new discretionary spending.”  The cap called for in the “Pledge” is not statutory (and so not a law itself), it is a cap on discretionary spending only (and so would not be affected by cost inflation in Medicare, Medicaid or the Veterans Administration), and calls only for a “hard” spending cap–not one pegged to the rate of inflation plus population growth.  The “Pledge” spending cap proposal is clearly more-practical.

7. “Repeal the health care legislation passed on March 23, 2010: Defund, repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (56.39%).”

Same as in the “Pledge.”

8. “Pass an ‘All-of-the-Above’ Energy Policy: Authorize the exploration of additional energy reserves to reduce American dependence on foreign energy sources and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation. (55.5%).”

Same as in the “Pledge.”

9. “Reduce Earmarks: Place a moratorium on all earmarks until the budget is balanced, and then require a 2/3 majority to pass any earmark. (55.47%).”

The “Pledge,” amusingly, contains no references to “earmarks” and only 1 reference to “pork,” which it pledges shall not be allowed to hold up budgeting for the troops.  The Republicans’ commitment not to piggyback earmarks on appropriations for our soldiers and Marines is laudable; it still would have been nice if they could also have committed to prohibit holding government benefits for the vulnerable back home hostage, as their own Senator Jim Bunning did when he filibustered the bill to renew unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits last spring in a shameful bid to direct stimulus funds to private projects in his home state.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s outgoing colleague, ladies and gentlemen.

In the “Pledge’s” defense, earmarks are an insignificant component of Federal spending, and are sometimes one of the few metrics by which local constituents can judge a Representative’s or a Senator’s sensitivity to issues and interests in the places they represent.  Just ignore the bad aftertaste it leaves.

10. “Reduce Taxes: Permanently repeal all recent tax increases, and extend permanently the George W. Bush temporary reductions in income taxcapital gains tax and estate taxes, currently scheduled to end in 2011. (53.38%).”

Same as in the “Pledge.”


In conclusion, the “Pledge to America,” which includes a number of commitments not made in the “Contract from America,” is less-committal, but in a specific and consistent way: It does not commit to permanent restrictions in the size of the Federal budget.  The House Republican leadership, with the exception of scrapping the graduated income tax, has embraced all of the short-term policy goals of the Tea Party but refuses to relinquish the power to increase spending or spend at a deficit at some point in the future.  The Tea Partiers would probably call that living with a moral hazard if not an outright betrayal; I call it being prepared for the future.  If the sidelining of self-appointed Tea Party upstart Bachmann is any indication, the House Republican leadership will prevail on the basis of numbers, experience, and yes, even resolve.


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