January/ February 2012 The Tea Party

Picking the candidates and writing the agenda.

By David Weigel

But that term—“sponsor this bill in the House”— became mostly meaningless in 2011. The biggest dreams of the new House majority were crushed by a Democratic president and Senate. Defunding NPR, defunding Planned Parenthood, ending foreign aid—all of it passed, none of it survived. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” died, too.

The Tea Party expects another crack at this—all of this—in 2013. The Tea Party Budget suggested where the movement will go next. It endorsed the elimination of four Cabinet agencies—Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. (One better than Rick Perry, one worse than Ron Paul.) It would privatize the big government- sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, and Amtrak. It killed farm subsidies, ethanol subsidies, $962.3 billion worth of defense spending, and whatever might be left of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

One reason why the cuts were so deep: the Tea Party’s budget adds to the deficit by keeping faith with Republicans on bills they’ve opposed. “Obamacare”? Gone, despite the cost savings. Social Security? Optionally privatized for workers under thirty, who would immediately start tak- ing money out of the system. The Bush tax cuts survived in toto. The Tea Party expects what Republican leaders and old hands like Grover Norquist expect. No new taxes. No old taxes. Keep the revenue stream as thin as possible— that’s how you make entitlement cuts and massive discretionary cutbacks inevitable.

But the movement has much larger dreams than that. The ideas hashed out at Americans for Prosperity’s summit included things that haven’t gotten anywhere in Congress, like the land sales, and bills that have been introduced but then have moldered in the lower house’s slush pile.

The strongest item in that ledger is the REINS Act. (REINS: Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny.) There may be no purer Tea Party legislation out there. It was dreamed up by Lloyd Rogers, a retired judge from Campbell County, Kentucky, population 90,336. In August 2009, deep into the Obama backlash, Rogers met with Representative Geoff Davis and gave him a piece of paper with a new proposed law on it:

All rules, regulations, or mandates that require citizens, state, or local government financial expenditures must first be approved by the U.S. Congress before they can become effective.

Davis started editing. His version of the REINS Act requires a vote within seventy days of any rule coming to Congress (if no vote occurs, the proposed rule is automatically rejected), and limits the law to rules expected to have an impact larger than $100 million. It made it into the GOP’s 2010 campaign manifesto, the Pledge to America. When Rand Paul arrived in the Senate, he sponsored the upper house’s version. This is model legislation, a perfect example of how the Tea Party expects Republicans to govern if they win. Anything less than a top-to-bottom rethink of post-1933 federalism is unacceptable.

If there’s a paucity of innovative, incentive-tweaking public policy ideas here, that’s the intent. The Tea Party wants deconstruction, not some 1994-style Republican agenda, all marginal revisions and government reform. According to its own internal history, the movement was created as a reaction to George W. Bush’s version of the GOP; all those compromises on No Child Left Behind, TARP, and Medicare were sellouts, things for the GOP to atone for. Under Bush, Republicans worked quietly to hamper the growth of unions; a bill proposed by Tea Party House freshman Trey Gowdy would simply eliminate the National Labor Relations Board altogether.

The goal of government, come 2013, should be to erase what the government has been doing. The only new government function that’s gotten a hearing in the movement is a “reverse appropriations committee,” an idea that Rand Paul and others took from the 1980s, which would assign senators to find spending to cut. The movement’s ideal budget reform: zero-based budgeting. If that were enacted, every year’s appropriation process would start with no funding for any discretionary program.

Oh, there are limits. In polls, the Tea Party’s membership reveals itself as naive about what costs what. There’s boundless enthusiasm for foreign aid cuts, but the same people who cheer for those budgets to be slashed will then boo in agreement whenever Romney denounces the Medicare cost reductions in “Obamacare.”

That’s where the full-time Tea Party agitators come in. That’s how the industry-funded groups find their opening to tell the base what it cares about. The Tea Party’s grassroots apparatus peaked in 2010. The think tanks funded by the energy industry or the banking sector are thriving, and they know what they want the base to work toward. Deregulation, scaled-back appropriations, sold-off public goods—if the Tea Party wins, it’ll be expected to provide the public pressure for all of it.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

David Weigel reports on politics and policy for Slate.


  • John Fowler on February 28, 2012 9:06 AM:

    First off you need to get your facts straight. Americans for Prosperity is not a Tea Party Movement ally. They are allied with the GOP Tea Party Express which has nothing to do with the Tea Party Movement. Theyre application to join the movement was denied due to the racist rants of Mike Williams. The Tea Party Express is not in any way associate, affiliated or a part of the Tea Party Express movement in any capacity. And lastly the Tea Party Movement has decided to focus on what we began with. Activism. Grassroots political education of the electorate. Rallies arent working but our working with the people to inform and educate still does. We are far from dead. But you go on thinking we are...it works to our advantage. Remember, the Tea Party movement (unlike the GOP Tea Party Express) is a non-profit educational entity. We cannot finance, support or oppose any candidate for any office ever under the tax laws governing non-profits. Never could...so these so-called "Tea Party Candidates" arent ours...theyre the GOP's. Always have been. Wake up to reality. Pragmatic liberal viewpoints serve no one but idiots. Try some truth...you might find it more palatable.