Tea party losing steam
With only three dozen original tea party members still in the U.S. House seeking re-election, the difference between riding a wave and governing has become apparent.
The Republican newcomers stunned Washington back in
2010 when they seized the House majority with bold promises to cut taxes and spending and to roll back what many viewed as Barack Obama’s presidential overreach.
But don’t call them tea-party Republicans any more.
Only eight years later, the House Tea Party Caucus is long gone.
So, too, are almost half the 87 new House Republicans elected in 2010 — the biggest GOP wave since the 1920s.
Some, including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, joined the executive branch. Others slipped back to private life.
Several are senators.
Now, with control of the House again at stake this fall and just three dozen of them seeking re-election, the tea-party revolt shows the difference between riding a campaign wave and the reality of governing.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, says every movement “goes through phases.” This one could perhaps be called the “cool-down” phase.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who was president of that freshman class, objects to the “tea-party” brand at all. He says it was slapped on the group by the media and the Obama administration. “We weren’t who you all said we were,” Scott said.
Never mind the tea-party slogan penned on so many protest signs: “TEA: Taxed Enough Already.”
That’s a label some lawmakers now would rather forget.
Scott prefers to call the movement “smallbusiness owners” or those who wanted to “stop the growth of the federal government.”
Despite all those yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and anti-Obama health law rallies, Scott said the new Republican lawmakers wanted to work with the president, if only Obama would have engaged them. “We didn’t come to take over the country,” he said.
Yet change Washington they did, with a hard-charging, often unruly governing style that bucked convention, toppled GOP leaders — and in many ways set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump.
Tea-party Republicans forced Congress into making drastic spending cuts, in part by threatening to default on the nation’s debt — thereby turning a once-routine vote to raise the U.S. borrowing limit into a cudgel during the annual budget fights.
They halted environmental, consumer and workplace protection rules, and that rollback continues today.
Still, former Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. said, the class never really stuck together — and its agenda in many ways never took hold.
Over time, budget deals were struck, boosting spending back to almost what it was before the revolt.
Indeed, combined with the 2017 tax cuts, the GOP-led Congress is on track to push annual deficits near $1 trillion next year, as high as during the early years of the Obama administration when government stimulus was employed against the Great Recession.
“The establishment in Washington was happy to have our votes, but not to follow our agenda,” said Huelskamp, who lost a primary election in 2016 to a political newcomer and now runs the conservative Heartland Institute. It was “just a clear misunderstanding of what the people wanted.”
‘ZERO FOLLOW THROUGH’
Maya MacGuineas, president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said Republicans talked a good game by promising to balance the budget, but with control of Congress — and now the White House — they failed to tackle the tough tax-and-spending challenges needed to get there.
“That’s a whole lot of talk and zero follow through,” she said.
Frustrations within the ranks grew, and the new class splintered. Not all of them had been favorites of their local tea-party groups. Some joined other conservatives to form the House Freedom Caucus, which nudged then House Speaker John Boehner into early retirement in 2015.
Former Florida Rep. Allen West — among the more prominent class members who lost re-election and is now a Fox News contributor living in Texas — said the challenge for House Republicans heading into the fall election is, “Who are they? What do they stand for?”
House Republicans are wrestling with a midterm message at a pivotal moment for a party that Boehner says no longer exists.
“There is no Republican Party. There’s Trump’s party,” Boehner said at a recent policy conference in Michigan.
Boehner’s successor as speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also is stepping aside. He was a conservative up-and-comer long before the tea party and will retire after this term.
In fact, there are an unusually high number of House Republicans retiring this year, including nearly a dozen from the tea-party class. Several are running to be governors or senators, though some have already lost in primaries. Others resigned amid ethics scandals, while still others are simply moving on.
‘There is no Republican Party. There’s Trump’s party.’