The Tea Party and Me: A Very True Story
Bruce had one of his, as usual, very astute columns in The Fiscal Times last week (posted here on CG&G) about how the tea party wing of the Republican Party is about to force the GOP’s hand on the budget.
I have my own story.
Several weeks ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to personally see the tea party in action when I spoke at the first meeting of the tea party caucus in the House of Representatives.
A shutdown was looming: The meeting took place on Monday evening, February 28th, the day before the vote was scheduled in the House on the first extension of the continuing resolution. I had been invited by tea party favorite Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) – who was presiding over the meeting even though she insisted she was not the leader of the tea party -- to speak on the debt ceiling because of a column I had written on the subject on January 11 in Roll Call.
I was both surprised and flattered by the invitation because my background is decidedly not tea party. Nevertheless, a member of Congress was asking for my advice and counsel and, when I grew up in this business, that’s not something you turn down easily.
I was also surprised by the invitation because I wrote the column to pour cold water on a number of the misstatements that were being made at the time about the debt ceiling. For example, some commentators were saying that not increasing it would lead to an immediate default and government shutdown. Because of that, the idea was rapidly making the rounds at the time that the debt ceiling could be used to force the White House to do things on the budget it didn’t want to do.
In other words, the column was telling the tea party that its apparent plan to use the debt ceiling as a lever with the administration was based on a misreading of how it worked and very likely wouldn’t succeed. Nevertheless, I was invited to attend and decided to go.
The meeting was held in a small room in the Capital building across from the members’ dining room and it was packed by the time it began. I didn’t actually count, but my recollection is that 15-20 members of Congress attended along with staff and other tea party supporters.
The meeting began with Rep. Bachmann introducing me. I then talked for about 25 minutes about the debt ceiling and essentially repeated what I had written in the column.
But I was just the opening act. The other three speakers were the tea party chairs from three states – Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida – and each one instructed the House members who were in the room what they expected them to do on budget issues.
Actually, “instructed" is not strong enough; what they said to the members is best described as nonnegotiable demands. They insisted that no one vote for that first extension of the CR unless it included a provision defunding healthcare reform (they called it “Obamacare’). They also unequivocally insisted that no one vote to increase the debt ceiling. And, they were absolutely adamant that the spending cuts in the continuing resolution that the House members were so proud of were insignificant and that entitlements had to be tackled immediately.
One of the more interesting exchanges occurred when one of the House members who was there asked the tea party chairs if they really had expected them to have reformed Medicare in the first six weeks of the session. Another was when one of the members complained about having been booed at a national tea party meeting that had just been held.
But the most interesting exchange came when the tea party state chairs openly threatened the reelection of the tea party supporting members of Congress who attended. This was anything but subtle. One of the chairs specifically pointed at the members and told them that the tea party had elected them and would run someone against them in the next election if they didn’t vote as expected. This was beyond a “passionate” exchange: It was angry with a strong take-no-prisoners attitude.
From a federal budget debate perspective, here’s what I heard at the meeting.
First, after talking with a number of the members of Congress who attended, it was clear that at least some GOP representatives who are tea party supporters were going to vote against extending the CR the next day. Several told me that their leadership’s unwillingness to cut off funding for health care reform was a big problem for them because they were assuming that once it was taken off the table, cutting off funding would never come back.
Second, the tea party folks – both members of Congress and others – do not trust House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) or Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) not to sell out their agenda.
Third, as I’ve been saying for a while, compromise is not an option.
What’s happened since then has pretty much followed the script that was laid out at the tea party caucus meeting.
First, the next day six GOP members of Congress voted against the two-week extension of the CR. All six were tea party supporters.
Second, there was far more Republican opposition – 54 – to the second extension approved last week. That’s significant because it’s 14 more than the number of House members who (according to those who attended the February caucus meeting) openly consider themselves to be tea party people.
Third, the distrust of Boehner and Cantor has become clear and is out in the open for all to see.
This presents the House Republican leadership with two very difficult choices on the federal budget.
On the one hand it can move further to the right to accommodate what the tea party wants. If it does that, however, it likely will adopt legislation that won’t pass in the Senate. By doing that the party will make the tea party happy but nothing will actually be accomplished.
On the other hand, as it did on the latest continuing resolution, the leadership can move toward the center and pick up enough Democratic votes to get something passed by Congress. Doing that will likely mean, however, that the GOP will lose the tea party not just on this issue but on most others at least until the next election. Given what I heard a the caucus meeting, Boehner and Cantor might both get primary challengers from tea party candidates in 2012.
As I’ve been saying for a while, all of this makes a government shutdown more likely to happen. After two anti-tea party votes on extending the continuing resolution, Boehner and Cantor have to do something very soon to convince the tea party wing of their caucus that they are on their side. The easiest way to do that may well be to adopt the take-no-prisoners attitude I saw and heard at the caucus meeting when the current CR expires on April 8.
Allowing or forcing a shutdown to occur may be just what the leadership needs to do to demonstrate its commitment to the tea party’s preferred policies and style. Given that the vote on another short-term or full-year CR will be the first chance the leadership gets to do this when Congress returns, it may also be close to mandatory.