I’ve been skeptical of the Tea Partyers’ commitment to entitlement reform and meaningful debt reduction. Sarah Palin, after all, pioneered death panel demagoguery in response to the mere possibility of rationalized Medicare spending. The notion that eliminating earmarks—a Tea Party whipping boy–will have any effect on the budget deficit is fantastical, since earmarks constitute a mere $16 billion in federal spending.
So it will be revealing to see how Tea Party representatives react to the preliminary deficit reduction plan from the presidential commission. It would be refreshing if, instead of exclusively blasting the proposal’s relatively modest tax increases, such as raising the federal gas tax fifteen cents to pay for transportation projects (a legitimate user fee), they supported the proposal’s more audacious cuts, such as reducing the mortgage deduction. (The commission would eliminate the deduction only for mortgages over $500,000, alas.) The willingness to take on this middle class subsidy would be stronger proof of iconoclastic independence than pushing for repeal of 17th Amendment, a favorite piece of Tea Party arcana. Both would be an uphill battle; I’d rather see political capital expended on getting rid of a constitutionally-suspect government hand-out, especially given the contribution of the federal government’s obsession with increasing home ownership to the 2008 fiscal crisis.
Here are some other commission proposals that the Tea Partyers should meet and raise:
–$100 billion in defense spending cuts, including closing a third of overseas bases. I haven’t heard many Tea Partyers opine on whether the Founders, notoriously skittish about foreign involvement, would have supported our Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or whether they would have embraced the idea that the U.S. military has the mandate and ability to introduce constitutionally-restrained democracy into alien cultures. I would love to hear a Tea Party sympathizer challenge the conservative received wisdom that we aren’t spending enough on “homeland security.” Instead, many of the party’s icons, such as Scott Brown and of course la Palin, parrot the neocon bromides about the looming threat from “Islamofascism.” A conservative contender for the U.S. Senate seat from New York claimed unimaginatively that the federal government was stiffing New York City in homeland security funds—a standard chest-thumper of all New York politicians, Republican and Democrat alike. Why not call instead for eliminating the inefficiencies in the Department of Homeland Security and the redundancies among intelligence agencies and the Pentagon? Why not redirect the boondoggle of homeland security spending, with its gaggle of lobbyists and contractors, into domestic policing and prison maintenance? New York sends one thousand police officers on a cavalcade through the streets every day to show the terrorists who’s in control. A city that can afford such a squandering of police resources can’t be hurting that badly on anti-terror resources.
–Eliminating the employer deduction for employee health insurance and capping non-economic damages in medical tort liability. Tea Partyers have decried the terrible inefficiencies of employer health insurance deduction and called for tort reform. They should reiterate their support now.
–Simplifying the tax code; lowering the corporate income tax.
–Raising the social security retirement age. The commission’s proposal of raising it to 69 by 2075 has got to be a joke.
Creating support for cuts is more important at this moment than fending off any tax increases. Republicans historically have been able to cut taxes, they have been far less successful in cutting spending. The Tea Party will justify its claims to significance if it can create the political will to reduce entitlements and to challenge Republican sacred cows.