Tea Party Caucus Leads GOP Charge Against Budget Crisis

The 2010 landslide election saw a revitalized Republican Party win 64 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives on a platform that rejected the fiscal policies of the Democratically controlled 111th Congress.  One attention-grabbing key to this success was a new political force: the Tea Party.

More than a few pundits were skeptical about how this force would play out when it became institutionalized in the new Congress as the “Tea Party Caucus.”  David Kurtz, writing for Talking Points Memo, called it “no small irony” that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) would form such an “insidery and cocooned” thing as a caucus in connection with a “supposedly grassroots, spontaneous, and defiantly outsidery … movement.”  Juan Williams of Fox News wrote off the caucus for a different reason, noting that “Tea Party freshmen are all about talk radio rhetoric, campaign slogans and reveling in the widespread discontent with American politics.  They have yet to display any capacity to govern.”

Have any of these criticisms proven true?  Thanks to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation’s BillTally “100 Day Report” on Congress, we now have numbers, not just words, to assess what has happened in the House since January and examine the validity of these concerns.

Since 1991, BillTally has analyzed the fiscal impact of every proposed piece of legislation.  The system then matches up legislation with sponsorship records for every lawmaker, showing what would happen to the federal budget if all bills supported by a given member of Congress—regardless of floor votes—instantly became law.  Thus, BillTally offers a unique, by-the-numbers look at Congress’ agenda.

After 100 days, BillTally results show the average Republican would cut a net of $63 billion from the budget and the average Democrat would actually increase the budget by $6.3 billion.  Both are sharp reversals from the same time in 2009, when the typical House GOPer was not backing a net agenda to cut spending, while the average Democrat was backing a much bigger boost in the budget.

Yet, this is only the bird’s-eye view of the situation.  A closer look reveals unexpected findings, and a Tea Party performance that may shock critics.

Surprisingly, veteran Republicans are proposing nearly the exact same amount of cuts as incoming GOP freshmen who were swept into office on the back of such fervent anti-establishment support (freshmen being only slightly north of the $63 billion average and veterans slightly below).

These results might lead to the assumption that the Tea Party Caucus would not be any more revolutionary than the Republican House as a whole.  But that would be a mistake—this band of lawmakers proposed more spending reductions, on average, than any other group in Congress: a net of $99.1 billion.

That is a significant legislative impact for the Tea Party brand.  Perhaps the movement is not as vulnerable to being co-opted by old-guard legislators as some initially speculated.

Even the conservative Republican Study Committee was behind the Tea Party in savings proposals, offering $74.5 billion in net cuts.  The Republican Main Street Partnership, a self-identified “pragmatic” group, offered only $31.1 billion in cuts.

Removed from the driver’s seat, the Democratic caucuses seem no longer able to put their foot on the gas, and the data reflects that difference.

The Progressive Caucus weighed in at $8.7 billion in new spending proposals (despite working for a rollback of Defense Department spending to 2008 levels), while the self-described “moderates” in the Blue Dog Coalition sought $3.3 billion in spending hikes.  Considering the general sense of agreement that there must be some kind of budget reduction to tackle the deficit, this continued aggravation of the problem by Democrats may come as news to some.

Aside from all the chatter over its creation, the Tea Party’s entry into the congressional fray has had an immediate and noticeable effect on spending legislation in the 112th Congress.

Yet a historical comparison to the incoming class of 1994 reveals that even deeper cuts than the Tea Party Caucus has proposed will be needed to meet America’s fiscal challenges.

That Congress, the 104th, proposed a total gross savings (before offsetting increases) of $123.9 billion—61% less than the current Congress (even after adjustments for inflation).  Yet those cuts proposed in the 104th Congress would have erased a whopping three-fourths of the federal government’s deficit in 1995. 

Today’s proposals would only slash less than one-fifth of our record 2011 deficit.

On the heels of the voter intervention of 2010, the 112th Congress has finally forced Washington to admit it has a spending problem.  However, there is a long road to fiscal recovery, and taxpayers who support budgetary restraint will likely need to remain vigilant against relapses into the addiction to recklessly running up the nation’s credit card.