“The Gestapo kicked us out!” shouted a large, bearded man in a black windbreaker, blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. A police crackdown on Occupy Wall Street? Nope. It was a group of tea partiers from Freedomworks who had been kicked out of the Senate’s Russell building after Senate officials had determined the group’s presentation on deficit reduction had violated the chamber’s rules for outside group events by calling itself a “hearing.”
If both liberals and conservative legislators are now pushing the supercommittee to “go big” — on the order of $4 trillion in cuts — tea partiers are trying to reclaim the mantle of the budget warrior: they want to go much, much bigger.
Freedomworks assembled its own “debt commission,” which unveiled its plan on Thursday to slash an eye-popping $9.7 trillion from the budget over the next 10 years and bring spending down to 17.5 percent of GDP.
“Was that so hard?” asked Rep. Paul Brown (R-Ga.), who warned that giving up their fight could risk plunging the country into “the deep dark chasm of socialism.”
The proposed deficit reduction measures ran the gamut of tea party targets: eliminating the Department of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing; allowing opt-outs for Medicare and privatizing Social Security; letting people use gold-backed currency; and eliminating all federal student loans and farm subsidies.
The plan doesn’t have a chance of passing Congress any time soon, but it’s the tea party’s attempt to retake the helm of the party’s right flank and blow up the parameters of the debate, as they had not, even a year earlier. “I think $9 trillion is a good start,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), comparing the Freedomworks’s budget favorably to his own proposal to cut $9 trillion by freezing federal spending for 10 years. “It fits very closely with what I’ve been promoting,” he told the crowd.
But it’s unclear whether all of Freedomworks’s proposed cuts would add up to $9.7 trillion in the first place. The group says, for instance, that eliminating the Affordable Care Act, for instance, would save $212 billion in spending over the next 10 years (the Congressional Budget estimates that it would actually increase the deficit by about $145 billion by 2019). And, as Dave Weigel notes, Freedomworks admits that a handful of its proposals — eliminating the president’s policy “czars,” “green technology” initiatives, and curbing medical malpractice lawsuits — would reduce the deficit by a total of zero dollars.
Thursday’s event did made it clear, however, how dissatisfied tea party activists have been in the aftermath of their 2010 electoral victories. The once-vaunted Ryan budget never got anywhere, and most seemed to view the debt-ceiling deal as an unfortunate concession by the GOP. “2010…has not halted our government gone wild,” said Deneen Borelli, a fellow at Freedomworks. “Unlike Occupy Wherever You Are or the supercommittee, our tea party budget is a bold plan for our country.” Despite some vocal concern about defense cuts — one area where the crowd remained suspicious of slash-and-burn reductions — there seemed to be little expectation in the room that this supercommittee, at least, might do their bidding.
Acknowledging such disappointments, some legislators at the event urged the tea partiers to look toward the next set of elections in 2012 — or outside of Congress altogether. “Now with this debt-ceiling deal, they’re telling us we can’t balance our budget ever,” said Rep. Steve King, who urged activists to rally around the balanced budget amendment. “These things are necessary, but it’s not going to get done by this Congress.”
Unable to make much headway in the halls of the Capitol — even for Thursday’s meeting — tea partiers used their outsider status as a rallying cry. “That’s why we’re in this room, because they don’t want to hear the truth!” Borelli proclaimed to the cheering crowd. But tea partiers will have to fight for the spotlight with the anti-corporate protesters who’ve succeeded in occupying the nation’s attention.