What the Tea Folk Want In the Fiscal Talks

To properly assess the lay of the land for the continuing fiscal negotiations in Washington, it’s kind of important to understand what those conservative Tea types fighting John Boehner actually want. You get the general impression they just want less compromise than Boehner. But the reality is quite different. Here’s an appropriate reminder from Breitbart’s Joel Pollak:

The present Tea Party dilemma did not begin in November 2012 but in January 2011, when the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives excluded Tea Party members from the highest leadership positions. The Tea Party, used to opposing but not to governing, acquiesced in a faulty arrangement that allowed the Republican establishment to lead the legislative agenda, and to blame the Tea Party when it failed.

That is exactly what happened in the summer of 2011, when Speaker of the House John Boehner quashed efforts by Rep. Jim Jordan to rally support around the Tea Party’s preferred “Cut, Cap and Balance” proposal in the debt ceiling debate. Boehner then signed onto an ill-fated deal that led to the present “fiscal cliff” impasse–while the Tea Party, slandered by the mainstream media as “terrorists,” bore the burden of blame.

Sounds semi-reasonable until you focus on what the “Cut, Cap and Balance” proposal involves. Here’s a description from June of 2011:

1. Cut – We must make discretionary and mandatory spending reductions that would cut the deficit in half next year.

2. Cap – We need statutory, enforceable caps to align federal spending with average revenues at 18% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with automatic spending reductions if the caps are breached.

3. Balance – We must send to the states a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) with strong protections against federal tax increases and a Spending Limitation Amendment (SLA) that aligns spending with average revenues as described above.

The “Cut, Cap and Balance” Pledge that was signed by 12 senators and endorsed by every one of the viable GOP presidential candidates (including Mitt Romney) made all three elements a condition precedent to support for any debt limit increase.

Since constitutional amendments require passage in both Houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote, and the version being promoted by conservatives involves a radical and permanent reduction in federal spending, it ain’t happening unless and until vast changes in the composition of Congress occur–maybe on the order of four or five straight 2010-style GOP landslides. So we’re not talking about some temporary “hostage-taking” involving the debt limit, but the kind where the hostage is resettled in another country under armed guard for years.

It is rather important that the media and Democrats understand where the Tea Folk are coming from. They aren’t just trying to push the country towards their policy priorities. The whole idea, and the rationale for all the revolutionary trappings, rhetoric and other folderol, is permanent repeal of much of the domestic policy legacy of the twentieth century–back towards what they imagine the Founders (and for many of them, Almighty God) intended. For the most part, they have little to fear from voters back home. There is no price to be paid for craziness and intransigence, though in most cases there is decidedly a big risk in exhibiting reasonableness.

So that’s who we are dealing with, and best we can tell, there are enough of them in the House to keep Boehner from showing much reasonableness as well.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.