Many of my friends have been puzzled that I have not been a strong critic of the Tea Party. Indeed, quite the opposite, I stand as a critical admirer. That means that while I don't share most of the substantive ends of many in that movement, and I strongly object to the extremism of some, I am a genuine admirer of the urge to reform that is at the heart of the grassroots part of this, perhaps the most important political movement in the current political context.
My admiration for this movement grew yesterday, as at least the Patriots flavor of the Tea Party movement announced its first fight with (at least some) Republicans. The Tea Party Patriots have called for a GOP moratorium on "earmarks." Key Republican Leaders (including Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman John Boehner) intend to introduce a resolution to support such a moratorium in their caucus. But many Republicans in both the House and Senate have opposed a moratorium. Earmarks, they insist, are only a small part of the federal budget. Abolishing them would be symbolic at best.
This disagreement has thus set up the first major fight of principle for the Tea Party. As leaders in the Tea Party Patriots described in an email to supporters,
For two years we have told the media and the rest of the country that we are nonpartisan and that we intend to hold all lawmakers to a higher standard.
This, they insist, is their first chance for that stand with the new Republican Congress. And the Tea Party Patriots have now mobilized their list to pressure Republicans to support this first and critical reform in the new Congress.
The Tea Party is right to push to abolish earmarks from Congress, and the defenders of the status quo are either deceivers, or just plain dumb. It is true that the total spending affected by earmarks is tiny. But by the same logic, one might as well observe that the bribes paid to Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Republican) and William J. Jefferson (Democrat) were tiny as well. Is that a reason not to prosecute those Members for taking them?
Earmarks are not bribes. But they are an essential element in the corruption that is Congress today. As Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser describes in his fantastic book, So Damn Much Money, they have become the key to an incredible economy of influence that effectively enables lobbyists to auction too many policy decisions to the highest special interest bidder. That economy won't change simply by eliminating earmarks. But eliminating earmarks is an essential first step to starving this Republic-destroying beast.
A government in which access can be bought, and influence paid for is not the Republic our Framers intended. They wanted a Congress "dependent," as Federalist #52 puts it, "upon the People alone." But through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Congress has evolved to become "dependent" not upon "the People," but upon "the Funders." Earmarks are a critical element in that dependency. And if we're going to end government captured by an elite, we have to end that dependency.
This fight is just the first in a series that this more principled wing of the Tea Party movement can expect. For the truth is that not everyone on the Right shares their passion for ending the corruption that now rules Congress. During the rise of the GOP in the 1990s, some of the rights suggested that it was just "socialist" to question the power of the rich to buy influence over our government. The ideals of the free market, these GOP leaders insisted, should include a free market to buy government policy.
That idea is heresy to anyone standing in the tradition of Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan. (Friedman, for example, insisted on a free market within the rules set by the government; he didn't believe in a free market for those rules.) Yet that idea governs too much of both the Republican and Democratic parties of the past 20 years. It is an important and valuable development for the Republic that a powerful and passionate political movement on the Right makes ending this free market in government influence a core plank in its platform.
But if the Tea Party is really to be "nonpartisan," then it needs to stop limiting itself to speaking to Republicans alone. Important Democrats share at least some of their reform ideals, including otherwise liberal Democrats, such as Congresswoman Jackie Spear (D-CA). The movement should rally Members from both the Right and the Left for any reform that is right (as in correct). The Tea Party Patriots' reform to abolish earmarks is plainly that.
Now, of course, I have no illusion that my admiration for the Tea Party can be returned. A movement against "elites" is not likely to listen to a Yale educated Harvard Professor. But if that movement is to be as central to the restoration of the American Republic as its most passionate supporters believe, then it needs to recognize that while we don't share common ends, we do face a common enemy. Special-interest-government is anathema to both the true Right and the limping Left. Progress would be to work together to end it.