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Praise for (Some) Tea Partiers

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, March 24, 2011

When it comes to my sanity, the tea party often taketh away. I go nuts when they throw out huge sums to cut from budgets without getting into details. Ditto when they bash the scraps spent on poor children, then defend their plush Medicare benefits. Double ditto when they insist that they've paid for said Medicare bennies through their payroll taxes and subscriber costs. (They haven't come close.) Then you have their naive claim that the budget crisis can be fixed without new taxes.   

But I haven't come here to complain about the tea party. Nay. There are times when the movement has delivered totally "giveth" moments. Let me cite some.

Republicans have a hard time wrapping their brains around the idea that defense spending can be wasteful. Thus, congressional Republicans find it politically handy to hide their little job-creation programs behind the banner of national security. Some tea party members have decided to call them on the practice.

Case in point, several tea party Republicans helped Congress ditch an alternate fighter jet engine that the Pentagon didn't want to spend money on but that Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner did. The engine represented 1,000 jobs in Boehner's Ohio. Bravo to the 44 Republican freshmen who voted against it. (Let the record also note that nine Republican freshmen from Ohio and Indiana, where the engine was also being developed, voted in favor.)

The tea party's finest hour was when it forced Congress to at least temporarily do away with earmarks, the nice word for "pork." Earmarks help politicians skirt normal budgeting procedures to fund their pet projects, often at the behest of campaign contributors.  

The pork-meisters insisted that earmarks add relatively little to budget deficits, which is true. Last year, they amounted to less than 1 percent of total spending. But even a small slice off the mega-billion pie is still serious money. Remember when House Republicans sought spending cuts for a temporary plan to avert a government shutdown? They looked in the pile set aside for earmarks and, lo and behold, found nearly $3 billion.

More worrisome than the actual cost of earmarks is the way they can feed huge spending elsewhere. Here's how it works: A powerful member of the appropriations committee grants Rep. X $1 million in pork for a museum back home, but with this condition: Rep. X must agree to vote for the committee's spending bill, however bloated it may be.

Both parties have long taken great pleasure in handing out pork. Happily, the tea party movement was able to scare both sides of the aisle into giving it up this year. To be specific, it forced two powerful pork-loving senators -- Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- to hoist the white flag on earmarks.

Bravo guys. I raise my cup to you.

The next spending frontier for the tea party movement should be farm subsidies. Many so-called conservative lawmakers support them because they represent rural areas where these government handouts are big money. Thus, they may need a swift kick from the tea party crowd.

After President Obama proposed cutting farm subsidies for the richest agribusinesses, nine Republican senators wrote to complain. And various tea parties have backed candidates who were personally taking hundreds of thousands out of the program. One would be Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who actually leads the House Tea Party Caucus.

No group is better positioned to put conservative lawmakers' feet to the fire on addressing wasteful farm subsidies. Do tea party members with principles have the guts to go there?

Nothing else they do would earneth more praise.

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