The Trouble with Tea Partiers as Legislators

The Republican majority moves into the House of Representatives today, fueled by the energy of newly elected Tea Partiers who arrive declaring that they’ll shake things up, undo Obama’s victories and change Washington.

My prediction: they will cause some commotion, get a good deal of attention, undo nothing and Washington will survive yet another push to transform it, for better or for worse.

There’s no doubt that the antics of members of the Tea Party Caucus will cause a stir. Their candidates proved successful at getting media attention, aggravating progressives and injecting ideas (at times toxic) into public discourse — there is every reason to believe this can continue.

But while theatrics make a successful campaign, they don’t pass legislation – you need a different set of skills for that.  As Mario Cuomo is often quoted, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”  Angry rhetoric got the Tea Party this far. Are they ready to find a new temperament for this new role?

Or, as I suspect, are they in for a series of shocks that will disillusion their supporters, sow discord in their caucus and in the end amount to “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

For one, there isn’t a single Tea Party agenda. That there are many different Tea Parties allowed candidates of many stripes to take on the Tea Party mantle, but it hardly created a unified national platform. Even the attempt at a national convention, headlined by Sarah Palin, was canceled. This is why you have some Tea Partiers who focus on smaller government, and others pushing for the repeal of the birthright citizenship guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. And why some are crazy over earmark reform, and others want to fight against the direct election of Senators. And why some see their battle against bank bailouts, and others target minimum wage laws.

These ideas are not all about lowering spending and reducing taxes – they are a cross-section of extreme right-wing ideas, which are not universally supported among Tea Party candidates, and certainly aren’t supported by Tea Party voters. As some of these ideas find footing in Congress, more voters will be distressed by what they elected.

Secondly, the Tea Party needs to contend with Congressional leadership made up of the same folks who used to ostracize Ron Paul. Speaker-to-be John Boehner has made nice with the Tea Party so far, but how far can it stretch? Ron Paul has spoken against the military industrial complex, against the Patriot Act, against charging Wikileaks with a crime. True Tea Partiers may find those stances attractive, but Republican leadership won’t. 

In part, Boehner just doesn’t agree with Paul on these issues. There are fundamental disagreements within the Republican Party. But beyond the substance, it’s also politics.  Boehner doesn’t want to look like a Gingrich Congress, and will try to stamp out exactly the excess of ideological energy many new members are bringing to the House.

Thirdly, the Tea Party agenda just isn’t that popular. When you speak about “rolling back Obamacare,” you get cheers, but which parts that have been enacted so far are so unpopular? As of now, denying care for children based on pre-existing conditions is banned. People up to age 26 can access coverage through their parents’ plans. Eighty percent of premiums must be spent on health costs, not overhead. Which of these do you want to go to the mat fighting to repeal?

As for tackling the budget – which is often code for privatizing Social Security – the Tea Party will find real opposition since a large majority of Americans would rather see higher taxes on the rich, or even cuts in defense spending, before they’d want politicians messing with their Social Security and Medicare.

It’s easier to find supporters when you’re shouting about a problem. It becomes a lot harder when you get specific about solving it.

Fourth and finally, it’s a pain to get things done in DC, and that’s by design. Progress, in any direction, is slow. Even if the House passes the most outlandish legislation, it will die in the Senate – as comprehensive immigration reform, an energy bill and efforts to close Guantanamo did in the last session, even when both chambers were controlled by the same party. 

The Tea Party can learn to compromise and it will get things done. Or it can stick to theatrics and see only rhetorical success. Maybe their voters in two years will support them again for standing on principle in their Quixotic crusades. Or maybe, their voters who want to see job creation, quality of life increases and a strengthened American reputation around the world — in short, who want to see results — will decide that this weak tea has finally gotten cold.

But, hey, if the new members end up supporting Ron Paul’s efforts to repeal the Patriot Act, slash military budgets and hold the Fed accountable…maybe they’ll find some surprising allies on my side of the aisle.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."