As lawmakers in Washington work to negotiate a deal on the debt ceiling, leaders of the tea-party movement have a message for Republicans: You are being watched. In the wake of what many consider an abysmal budget deal negotiated in April to avoid a government shutdown — Republicans had pledged to cut $100 billion, but wound up with only $40 billion, most of which comprised superficial spending reductions — the movement remains as relevant as ever, and it continues to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire.
Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most prominent tea-party organizations, is adamant that Congress should not allow an increase to the debt ceiling under any circumstances. “Washington is simply unable to control its own voracious appetite for people’s money,” he says in an interview with National Review Online. “At what point are we just going to say no? At what point are we going to say, for real, ‘We are going to cut up the credit card’?”
Meckler says a poll of Tea Party Patriots members showed that 98 percent supported this position — as do most Americans, he points out. In fact, polls consistently reveal majority opposition to raising the debt limit, with many Americans saying they are more concerned about the growing federal debt than they are about the prospect of a default. “We’re speaking for most Americans on this issue,” Meckler says.
He knows that his desired outcome is not very likely, but that hardly comes as a surprise. “We don’t expect to win every fight,” he says. “You’re not always going to be satisfied with the end result. But you have to stand for your principles.” Therein lies the “fundamental disagreement” between the tea-party movement and Washington politicians, he argues.
Amy Kremer, who co-chairs Tea Party Express, has a slightly different take. While she is opposed to raising the debt ceiling, her organization has signed on to the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” approach touted by members of the Republican Study Committee in the House and by senators Jim DeMint (S.C.), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Mike Lee (Utah), who constitute the Tea Party Caucus in the Senate. The approach calls for immediate spending cuts, a cap on total federal spending set at 18 percent of GDP, and the passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
“We obviously do not want a debt-ceiling increase. What’s the point of having the debt ceiling if you continue to raise it?” Kremer tells NRO. “We need good, strong leadership in Washington, and ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’ is a good step in the direction of getting our current house in order and providing a more permanent solution going forward.”
For Meckler, who stresses that he doesn’t necessarily speak for all Tea Party Patriots members, “Cut, Cap, and Balance” is a fine-looking plan — on paper. However, he simply doesn’t trust our lawmakers to follow through on it. “We already have very good evidence of what folks in Washington consider significant cuts,” he says, referring to the April budget deal, which was hailed as a “historic” spending cut by members of both parties. The spending cap at 18 percent of GDP, he argues, can easily be manipulated to avoid having to make real spending cuts. As for the balanced-budget amendment, Meckler says it’s an “important step” but is almost irrelevant as far as current negotiations are concerned, because it won’t have any effect on the economy in the short term. “We’re on the Titanic about to run into an iceberg,” he says, “and they’re proposing a fix that won’t come into effect for years at best. But it makes a great slogan, I guess.”
At the end of the day, Meckler predicts, GOP leaders will simply “get what they can, and cut and run.”
Meckler and Kremer agree that Republicans in Congress are under serious pressure this time to deliver a favorable result, particularly after the embarrassment of the budget deal. “They told us they were going to give us $100 billion, and they caved. That’s not acceptable,” Kremer says. “We are watching them more than ever before, and we’re not going to cut them any slack.”
“November 2012 isn’t very far away,” she adds, ominously. Senator DeMint has echoed this sentiment as well, warning colleagues that a vote for anything less than “Cut, Cap, and Balance” could cost them their jobs. “I would suspect,” DeMint added, “the Republican party would be set back many years.”
But beyond the issue of what should be done in regard to the debt ceiling, Meckler cites a growing frustration with the “back room” nature of recent negotiations on budget issues, which is at the heart of the American public’s general wariness of Washington politics. “We’re sick and tired of this process where politicians go into a back room,” he says. “Lord knows what they do in there. If it’s Boehner and Obama, maybe they light up a couple of cigarettes. We don’t know how they’re selling us down the river. But that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
One reasonable solution would be to have the debate in the Senate Budget Committee broadcast on C-SPAN, where taxpayers can see for themselves. “Politicians work for the American people,” Kremer says. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see what’s going on inside those talks.”
The Tea Party’s palpable frustration with Republican leaders since the April budget deal has led many media types to speculate that the movement is losing its relevance. “Can the Tea Party Survive a Debt Ceiling Deal?” read one recent headline. This is nothing to be concerned about, Meckler says. “I just laugh. They’ve been predicting our demise since February 2009, when we first got started.”
Tea-party members may cringe at the contents of an eventual deal to raise the debt ceiling, but they can at least take satisfaction in the extent to which they have driven the debate on fiscal issues in Washington and around the country. “The debate is a tea-party debate,” Meckler says. “From the school boards and city councils to state governments all the way up to the presidency, the debate is now dominated by tea-party-imposed discussions. If that’s becoming irrelevant, if that’s the definition of fading away and failure, then we’ll take that any day.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.