As Tea Party favorite Karl Marx once said, historical events occur twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. And so it is with the Tea Party "Contract from America." But rather than following Newt Gingrich's gimmicky 1994 path to retaking control of Congress, the Tea Partiers sound more like Ronald Reagan circa 1980. After all, the Gipper, too, promised to cut taxes, raise defense spending and balance the budget. Of course, what Reagan produced instead during his eight years in office was a tripling of the national debt and red ink as far as the eye can see.
Undeterred, today's Tea Baggers would condemn America to repeating that history of fiscal disaster, only on a far larger scale. Among the other inanities in their self-contradictory 10-point manifesto, three taken together represent the budgetary equivalent of declaring the sun rises in the west and that the law of gravity no longer applies:
(3) Demand a Balanced Budget: Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike.
(6) End Runaway Government Spending: Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth.
(10) Stop the Tax Hikes: Permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011.
Sadly, the Tea Party's fuzzy math doesn't work. Put another way, you can't get there from here.
For starters, the Bush tax cuts the Tea Party wants to make permanent (10) are largely responsible for the expanding deficits in this decade and the next. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) detailed, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 accounted for almost half of the mushrooming deficits during his tenure. And as another recent CBPP analysis revealed, over the next 10 years, the Bush tax cuts will contribute more to the U.S. budget deficit than the Obama stimulus, the TARP program, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and revenue lost to the recession - combined. (Ending the so-called "death tax," which impacts only 1 in 500 estates, will drain billions more per year from the U.S. Treasury.) An AP chart last fall of data from the Congress Budget Office show the explosion of federal debt that will ensue if the Tea Baggers and their Republicans get their way:
Of course, a balanced budget (3) could theoretically still be achieved if the Tea Partiers were willing to make draconian budget cuts to the $3.8 trillion federal budget proposed by President Obama. But these ersatz fiscal conservatives won't make the choices. We know this, because they told us so.
A quick note on the basic math of the budget. President Obama's proposed $3.8 trillion budget for 2011 is forecast to produce a $1.3 trillion deficit (down from $1.6 trillion in 2010). National defense and Social Security each come in at $738 billion. Medicare totals $498 billion, while Medicaid and other health care services add $260 billion and $25 billion, respectively. Throw in the required $251 billion in required interest payments on the national debt, and those portions alone of Washington's bill total over $2.5 trillion. Meanwhile, given that the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure and more than half over the next decade, the Obama budget rightly calls for letting the Bush tax cuts expire for Americans earning over $250,000. (For more details, see this convenient New York Times interactive budget chart.)
Despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers...
And nearly three-quarters of those who favor smaller government said they would prefer it even if it meant spending on domestic programs would be cut.
But in follow-up interviews, Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security -- the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on "waste."
Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.
If defense, Social Security, Medicare and the required interest on the national debt are untouched, that's over $2.2 trillion. Somehow, Tea Partiers would have to magically cut $1.3 trillion of the remaining $1.6 in FY 2010 spending.
The key is "have to." After all, the Tea Party "Contract from America," like Grover Norquist, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and legions of Republicans past and present, want a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Norquist's "starve the beast" dream of drowning government in a bathtub would be realized.
For her part, 62 year old Tea Party support Jodine White acknowledged to the Times:
"That's a conundrum, isn't it? I don't know what to say. Maybe I don't want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security." She added, "I didn't look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I've changed my mind."
She's far from alone. A recent poll by the Economist found that the only area of the federal budget which more than one-third of Americans supported cutting was foreign aid. "Bummer, then," Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote, "that it accounts for less than a single percent of the budget." (For more on this stunning chart of what Americans are willing to cut versus where their government actually spends their money, see Annie Lowrey.)
Which brings us, finally, to item #6 of the Tea Party's foul brew. As it turns out, the demand to "impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth" is simply a regurgitation of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) crusade of Grover Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform. Of course, TABOR doesn't merely handcuff the government during war, economic downturns and other times of crisis. As states like Colorado learned so painfully, such an arbitrary cap is a recipe for disaster.
Of course, the Tea Party "Contract from America" features other self-defeating proposals. Their fourth plank ("Enact Fundamental Tax Reform") calls for a "fair" and flat tax, one which would doubtless produce yet another massive windfall for the wealthiest Americans who need it least. (Ironically, that call came despite the fact that 52% of Tea Baggers said their income tax level was already fair, and was announced even as over 95% of working households received tax relief from President Obama.) And like the Republicans, the Grand Old Tea Party called for "Repeal & Replace" (7) of the new health care bill. Apparently, the so-called fiscal conservatives were unaware - or just chose to ignore - the fact that the health care reform is forecast to slash the deficit by $130 billion over its first decade and $1.3 trillion over 20 years.
For their part, Republican leaders are grappling with their own updated version of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. That document, of course, helped propel the GOP to victory in 1994. But as with Reagan's broken promise to balance the budget, we already know how this story ends.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)