Just before 2 p.m. on Thursday, as bands of Occupy Wall Street protesters clashed with police around the U.S., the movement whose headlines they’ve stolen neared an unexpected confrontation of its own.
For months, a group of 12 Tea Partyers, with help from the Washington-based libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks, has convened hearings around the U.S. to map out a way to fix the nation’s fiscal woes. Modeled on the structure of Congress’s deficit-reduction supercommittee, they took up the task Tea Party-style, in a parallel universe where patriots are unconstrained by the presence of Democrats or pesky concerns like whip counts.
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Now they had gathered, in a marbled salon with velvety curtains in the Russell Senate Building, to unveil their blueprint before an assembly of sympathetic legislators and hundreds of activists, many of whom traveled hours to be there. It was a poignant bit of symmetry: a triumph of the citizenry’s common sense and purpose, on display just blocks from where the real supercommittee was descending into characteristic dysfunction.
Then the hearing hit a snag. Suited Senate staffers arrived to inform the FreedomWorks team that the conclave violated Congressional rules, which prohibit legislative simulations from taking place in government hearing rooms. The seething Tea Partyers seemed ready to revolt. “We traveled seven hours and we ain’t going anywhere,” fumed a woman named Rose, who had bused in from Cincinnati. “Want to see Occupy? We’ll show you how to occupy.”
Fortunately, a solution was brokered: Hillsdale College, a Michigan school with an outpost on the Hill, offered to host the activists down the street. And so they shuffled off, making stilted small talk (did you see the national debt passed $15 trillion?), the rightness of their cause reaffirmed by the suggestion of conspiracy. “We came here to give constructive suggestions on how to solve these problems for the survival of our republic,” Rose said, “and they’re being obstructive. They are afraid of the truth.”
The truth is that the Tea Party budget, though a laudatory exercise in citizen engagement, remains mere fantasy so long as Democrats control a chamber of Congress. It would cut $9.7 trillion over the coming decade, balancing the budget within four years and whittling spending down to 18% of GDP. It’s a more conservative document than the very conservative budget proposals that have been repeatedly shot down in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The committee’s recommendations, largely cherry-picked from existing proposals put forth by GOP legislators like Tom Coburn and Jeff Flake, attack all the familiar conservative bugbears and some not-so-familiar ones. It would repeal “Obamacare,” Dodd-Frank and Davis-Bacon, establish private Social Security accounts, block-grant Medicaid to the states, end subsidies for farmers and Amtrak, eliminate four cabinet agencies (Energy, Education, Commerce and HUD) and downsize others like the EPA and TSA. It would not raise taxes, though it would, in an interesting wrinkle, allow citizens to choose which of Uncle Sam’s programs you’d prefer to pay a portion of your taxes into. It would eliminate Obama’s hated “czars.” It is a distillation of the conservative id.
“I’m an old budget geek, and I’ve never seen such a comprehensive, well-thought-out document,” said Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks’ president. “And you know why? Because it didn’t come from this town.”
Yet in some ways, the hearing was a quintessential Washington affair; it wouldn’t have been out of place in the well of the House. There was an endless series of oratory, evangelists preaching to the converted with a whiplashing mix of morning-in-America pep talks and doom metaphors (we are staring into the abyss, perched on a precipice, spending our way toward Greece-style ruin). Each of the Tea Partyers on the commission delivered speeches, as did a half-dozen of the movement’s heroes in Congress – Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Joe Walsh, and so on. As they trickled into the room, the members were met with murmured wows. “Oh my god, it’s Steve King!” a woman gushed when she spotted the Iowa congressman. The clapping and standing ovations could have filled an Oscar broadcast.
Occupy jokes abounded. What’s the difference between a Tea Party rally and Occupy Wall Street? Senator Rand Paul asked. “When the rally was over, when the protest was over, we picked up our signs. We cleaned up our trash. We took a bath. And on Monday we went back to work.”
More than 110 minutes into the two-hour session, the Q & A began. The moderator, a soft-spoken bearded guy who described himself as a “recovering Washington insider,” called on a woman who asked why nobody had mentioned auditing the Federal Reserve. (The document, which nobody had read yet, does in fact require it.)
Shouldn’t Tom Coburn run for president? a man inquired. (Sure, why not. He’s great.)
Another, confessing that he was “scared to death of this President,” wondered whether Obama might suspend elections in 2012 in a desperate effort to cling to power. (Unlikely, but get your muskets ready just in case.)
The last woman to speak first asked if anyone had seen her lost camera. Nobody seemed sure if this was a joke, but she plowed forward, unrolling a large laminated chart as she turned to face the crowd. “I made this because I’m tired of Democrats blaming us for everything,” she explained. It detailed past the 78 years of party control over the executive and legislative branches: Democrats in green, Republicans in yellow.
The colors blended together and the typeface was small; from the middle rows, it was tough to grasp the upshot. The woman started talking about how it illustrated the way Democrats “get their tentacles into everything,” which made the FreedomWorks people a little fidgety, so the moderator took the mic to explain, with a bit more polish, that the chart chronicled how Democrats had been the party presiding over the ruination of the capital.
“So it’s their fault!” a woman in the crowd shrieked triumphantly. “It’s their fault!”
It always is.