The Tea Party Debt Commission Hearing—at Denny's

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Sept. 28 2011 6:06 PM

Budget Cuts, Over Easy

At Denny's, the Tea Party holds its own debt-commission hearing.

Dick Armey
Dick Armey

ORLANDO, Fla.—Ron Forward trusted me. I told him I knew the quickest way to the second-ever Tea Party Debt Commission hearing. I was wrong. As we wander around the strip-mall blight near the Orange County Convention Center, squeezing past some bushes and generators, I begin to worry I have led us astray. Then I see the ads for the "Mac 'n Cheese Patty Melt." This is the place.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Today's hearing is taking place at Denny's, where there is already a heavy crowd looking at menus and glancing at a flat-screen TV. I take a seat next to members of Frederick Douglass Republicans, African-American conservatives with shirts that read "FDR: Not the one you're thinking of!" We chat for a little while about whether a Gingrich/Cain or a Cain/Gingrich ticket would be better for Republicans.

"We were hoping we'd get 50 people!" says a beaming Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks' director of state campaigns. Clearly, we're going to have an overflow.

A harried waitress picks up orders ("Give her a great tip!" says Steinhauser), and the program begins. Matt Kibbe, the mutton-chopped president of Freedom Works, starts by saying the first grassroots debt hearing, in Utah, was a huge success, with 300 attendees. "We spent three hours talking about some pretty substantial budget issues, stuff your member of Congress probably doesn't even know about," he says. "That's where we're going. We've got to push these budget issues for ourselves."

It's been two years since FreedomWorks sponsored a massive Taxpayer March on Washington, the mega-event that inspired the rest of the media to cover the Tea Party as much as Fox News did. A 2010 version of the march was markedly smaller. There was no attempt to repeat it in 2011. This is what FreedomWorks is doing instead: Trying to show Tea Partiers that they can be even more successful if they get seriously wonky.

Dean Clancy, the dry legislative counsel of FreedomWorks, has to do the heavy lifting. He loads a PowerPoint presentation onto the flat screen, talking activists through a history of the debt crisis. First up are the "traditional rules of fiscal discipline." They are:

Limit spending, tax lightly, keep borrowing to a minimum, and maintain a surplus to pay off debt.

"Keynesian economics reverses every one of these principles," explains Clancy. The activists take notes. No one appears to need convincing.

Clancy lays out the goals of the Tea Party commission, which contrast nicely with the Deficit Supercommittee, the lame D.C. pretender. The supercommittee wants to cut $1.2 trillion over 10 years; FreedomWorks wants to cut $9 trillion. The supercommittee wants the status quo, but smaller; FreedomWorks wants to balance the budget. The only other plan out there that balances the budget is Sen. Rand Paul's.

Dick Armey speaking to FreedomWorks activists in Orlando, Fla.
Dick Armey speaking to FreedomWorks activists in Orlando, Fla.

"Our favorite," Clancy explains. "He balanced the budget by 2016. He does it by getting rid of four federal departments: Energy, HUD …" The rest of the departments are drowned out by applause.

The presentation continues. "What drives our debt?" asks Clancy. His chart shows that it's health care spending, represented by a red line zooms upward like some supervillain's escape pod out of an underground lair. It's a persistent problem, and it needs to be attacked with spending cuts. The chart explains: "Outlays are currently 25 percent of GDP. Therefore, we cannot balance the budget by raising taxes." The movement must be ready. Failing to make the case that entitlements must be cut—something that some activists are slow to admit—is going to lead, down the line, to more taxes. We see four points summing this up.

1) Avoid exempting "scared cows."
2) Prefer specific cuts over "across-the-board" reductions.
3) Remember the Constitution.
4) Try to be politically realistic and savvy.

The last point is key, says Clancy, because Tea Partiers are "not going to reform Medicare overnight." Instead, he leads a test-drive of FreedomWorks' online program that lets voters eliminate chunks of federal spending in this-or-that blind tests.

"Reduce the number of federal buildings," asks Clancy, "or end family planning programs?"

"Family planning!" shouts the crowd.

"Pentagon savings or cutting military health care?"

There are outraged murmurs at the very idea of that second option. "Pentagon savings!"

"End farm subsidies or eliminate flood insurance?"

"Farm subsidies!"

"Not too many farmers here! OK. End job training programs, or ban earmarks?

"Earmarks!"

The program crunches the numbers.

"We, right here, without breaking a sweat, have saved $2.8 trillion over 10 years," says Clancy. "So, congratulations!"

Our work is half-done. Next, there'll be an airing of grievances (a little less wonky than the Utah hearing, says Clancy), and more pep talks. Freedom Works chairman Dick Armey has arrived to help close the session. The commission, he says, is just one more way of bringing the Republican Party in line with the activist base. "In the last election," he says, "they were singing from our hymn book!"

The rah-rah speech is brief but classic Armey—a free-form discussion of first principles and anecdotes, full of confidence that the activists will sort this stuff out. Maybe the Tea Party will keep co-opting Congress. Maybe it'll have to blow past some people who don't get it. He reminds them of the work he did with Ron Dellums, a long-time far-left congressman from Oakland and Berkley.

"I would tell him, 'Ron, you're so misguided, you think I'm misguided!' " says Armey. "Ah, it wasn't his fault. He studied at Berkeley. What chance did he ever have? You know, it's like Obama, who went to Harvard and looked up all the Marxist professors. What chance did he have?"