At 2 p.m. Thursday, as New York’s finest were prepping plastic handcuffs and orange netting around the park once occupied by Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party was fighting its own battle with the Man. More than 100 Tea Partiers had traveled to the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill to witness the results of a supercommittee-style Tea Party Debt Commission. They entered the building. They walked to the hearing room. They found their seats. Then they got kicked out. Security snatched placards off the podium. Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah freshman emceeing the show, tried to save it:
That didn’t work, so Lee stood in the center of the room and announced an exodus to a conservative college’s auditorium, a few blocks away.
“I will explain why when we get there,” said Lee. “What we have to discuss is sufficiently important that we need not have any threat of interference by any Senate staff member!”
The crowd broke into cheers, temporarily putting down smartphones and cameras to clap their hands. They marched from the room, down the stairs that really seem too large for humans, and onto the sidewalk. Lee explained that FreedomWorks, the Tea Party group that came up with this commission, had referred to the event as a “hearing,” and the Senate Rules Committee had objected to it, thus the sudden and unexpected purge. I pointed out to Lee that this was happening as the Tea Party’s bizarro cousin, just a short Acela ride away, was getting shut down by cops.
“The difference,” said Lee, “is that we’re peaceably assembling.”
There were other differences. The Occupy Wall Street struggle in New York folded not-so-neatly into a long-planned Day of Action by progressive groups. In 300-odd cities, progressives positioned themselves next to bridges they wanted more funding for, or businesses they wanted to shame. They got media coverage—lots of it. They got arrested. They had to put up with a lot more static than the Tea Partiers. Why, the reporters covering the debt stunt weren’t even arrested.
One more difference: The Tea Party Debt Commission was getting its way. The whole point of their project was providing a contrast, some goalpost-moving numbers, to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—the so-called supercommittee. That body only exists because the Tea Party demanded concessions for a debt-limit increase. There were six days to go before the committee has to report, and here was the Tea Party, demanding even more, acquiescing even less.
They just didn’t think they were winning. On the walk between buildings, North Carolina Tea Party activist Scott Broaddus—a Republican precinct chairman—worried that the supercommittee was going to do too little. “We need to do something big to avert a real crisis,” he said. “We’re heading down the road to Greece. You get to a point, and there’s going to be civil unrest.”
Greece wasn’t the only nightmare scenario that came up. David Kirkham, a Utah Tea Party activist who served as one of the 12 commissioners—the same number as the real supercommittee!—told the crowd of a 1995 trip he’d taken to Poland, when he watched factory workers laid off en masse. “That’s the end of the road of socialism,” he warned. “That’s the end of the road of TARP, of bailouts.”
That was the worry behind the Tea Party’s debt-limit crusade. It’s different from the actual political risks that the supercommittee has to deal with—actually, it’s even a little different than the discussion of how to eliminate the debt. When Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating, it did so because the country’s “policymaking and political institutions” scared it silly. “Our revised base case scenario,” it wrote, “now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.”
This was pretty clear: If you were focused on the debt, you had to give up some ground on taxes. If all of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent, $4 trillion would be slopped on to the debt. Play around, and you risk another downgrade.
Supercommittee Republicans and the Tea Party have basically the same response to this: We should keep the Bush tax rates, they say. We should use the opportunity/crisis/partisan hatchet-fight to cut even more. Do any less, and you’re not being honest about the problem. They have a point.
Still, I asked Lee if it was important just to support what the actual supercommittee came up with. “Look,” he said, “we face a credit downgrade if we don’t dramatically, systemically, structurally change the way we spend. So it’s not clear that even doing the minimum of what the legislation requires would solve any problems.”
The Tea Party’s solution: Do the maximum. The commission’s draft budget makes the Bush tax cuts permanent. It allows workers born after 1981 to opt one-half of their payroll taxes out of Social Security, which would cost “about $500 billion” in revenue. It goes on to find $9.7 trillion in overall savings, by dramatically scaling back the post-1933 welfare state. Anyone who wants to opt out of Medicare can do so. Medicaid becomes a block grant program; so do food stamps. The Affordable Care Act is repealed. Physician payment rates are kept at 2011 levels.
That was just the entitlement care portion of the budget, though it got some of the biggest cheers at the relocated hearing. (The biggest cheers probably went to the abolition of executive branch “czars,” even though that reform wouldn’t save any money.) More savings were found in the discretionary side, as long-loathed programs were blasted out of existence. The budget ends all farm subsidies, the ethanol tax credit, “foreign aid to countries that don’t support us,” earmarks, the Departments of Education and Energy (except for nuclear research, which would remained funded, just at the Department of Defense), HUD, most of the EPA, the Small Business Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and AmeriCorps. Amtrak and the TSA would be privatized. By 2015, the amount of soldiers deployed overseas would be cut back to 45,000.
This is several orders of magnitude bigger than supercommittee Republicans are talking about. Sen. Pat Toomey has proposed ending the crisis with a plan that would increase revenue by $300 billion while lowering the top tax bracket from 35 percent to 28 percent. That, for Republicans, would be a concession. Conservatives, bolstered by the Tea Party, are saying they won’t accept it. The elected officials who finally found the new “hearing” location were pleased with the Tea Party commission’s efforts.
“I think $9 trillion is a good start,” said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“I certainly would consider sponsoring this bill in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia. (He’d once floated the idea of lowering the debt limit.) “Y’all just came up with $9 trillion of cuts. Was it all that hard? We need a couple more!”
The meeting wrapped. There were no arrests.