Why the Tea Party Will Live On

The fiscal-cliff deal shows that government just can't stop getting bigger.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Crazies. Cliff divers. Nihilists. Nutjobs. Those are just a few of the descriptions being applied to the 151 House Republicans who broke with Speaker John Boehner--they included his own supposed wing men, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy--to vote against the fiscal cliff deal Tuesday night.

In truth, what the fine print of the bill demonstrates is that the Republicans who refused to vote for the fiscal compromise had every right to be disgusted by it--that is, if you expect legislators to hold true at all to the beliefs that inspired them to run for office in the first place. The last-minute deal exposed Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as creatures of the old system, and it ripped the scab off whatever healing had occurred between the Republican traditionalists and the tea partiers since then. Make no mistake: The divide within the GOP will continue, demonstrating that the tea-party rebellion lives on in the new House.

Tuesday's "no" votes represented a wide variety of views. But many GOP House members were appalled at the failure to cut spending or change traditional ways of doing business, especially what The Washington Post noted was "dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff" (including one that kicked over $12 billion over ten years to the renewable-energy industry; another that will benefit the owners of auto-racing tracks in the amount of $78 million; and a $1 million break for coal-mining operations on Indian lands). The House members opposed to this old way--as naïve as they often sound--make up the core of a legitimate resistance movement in American politics, one that is trying to stop the relentless tendency of U.S. government to grow ever larger and more complex, and one that remains frustrated at the continuing inability of its representatives, both Republican and Democrat, to rein that tendency in.

Under the provisions of this pork-laden, special-interest-infected bill--the "24,000 words of small type," as the Post put it--the tax system will change, somewhat. Spending habits will not. Other than making permanent most of the Bush tax cuts, the bill only puts off a reckoning on cuts in government and the $15 trillion in debt that the tea partiers have been chasing after since they roared into power in 2010--indeed since far longer than that.

Fault them if you will as primitivist monomaniacs. Question whether they are sincere enough to surrender their own Social Security and Medicare as well as everyone else's. But many tea party-affiliated members are true believers who have a long memory of Republican betrayal as well as enmity toward the Democrats. They know that despite the "Reagan revolution" three decades ago government has only grown bigger; that the various eruptions of conservative rebellion since the Reagan era, including the Gingrich-led takeover of the House in 1994, each amounted to little more than one step forward, two steps back. (Remember David Stockman and The "Triumph of Politics"?) They know that George W. Bush blew the budget out entirely, loading up the deficit with two wars, tax cuts and Medicare spending without paying for them. (Obama barely added to this deficit himself; his mistake was in failing to understand the tidal wave of populist conservative anger headed his way, especially when he pushed  for health care reform hard upon his multitrillion-dollar bailout and stimulus in 2009.)

And they know that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are not delivering up the answer they want.

American government has achieved many fine things over the last 60 years or so. It won a world war, reordered the global system, put a man on the moon, and created the Internet. But it has also continued to grow like a giant tumor, especially since World War II. A 2006 study by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis showed only small growth from 1792 until World War II (with a spike during WWI), but then a relentless steady rise since a brief fall-off in war spending in the late 1940s. By 2004, the federal government was spending $7,100 per capita, nearly 55 times more than was spent per capita in the 1910s, the Fed said.

This has had paralyzing effects. The late University of Maryland economist Mancur Olson once described how the accumulation of vested interest groups and bureaucracies in free societies causes a kind of sclerosis. Over decades the system becomes harder to reform; new ideas and a new consensus have more difficulty gaining a foothold. We saw this phenomenon unfold in both the areas of financial reform after the 2008 subprime mortgage disaster and in national security after 9/11. In both cases, the U.S. government probably responded less nimbly now than it did in previous eras because of the accumulation of vested-interest groups.

For example, the way that Congress and the White House took bold action and separated commercial and investment banking under the Glass-Steagall law in the 1930s might be much more difficult today. There are too many entrenched government agencies delegated to oversee the financial industry, and too many members of Congress vested in keeping them happy (because their particular committees oversee them). The banking lobby is vast and dug in.

Similarly, in meeting the challenge of World War II and the early Cold War, the government was still small enough to push "blue-sky" reform. America could build the intelligence apparatus that it needed from scratch because much the national-security state back then was tiny. Today, by contrast, every intelligence agency is a giant vested interest left over from a half century of world war and cold war. The FBI, CIA, and other intelligence and national-security agencies seem to spend almost as much energy defending their own turf as the homeland itself--all of which has made true reform far more difficult.

So it is with Congress. It is sclerotic, and Boehner and McConnell are symptoms of that malady. In the eyes of many critics, so is President Obama. Full of second-term verve, Obama declared unilaterally Tuesday that he will no longer  negotiate over the nation's debt limit after the brinkmanship of the last couple of years. "I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed," the president said. With the new deadline on the "sequester" just two months away, he urged "a little less drama" in coming talks about cutting government spending.

Sorry, but I think the drama is far from over. The rebellion against the size of government is a true populist movement, and it's not going away. The debt limit is still the biggest card the tea party has. They're going to use it.