Government Spending

If the Tea Party Prefers Bachmann to Hensarling, What Good Is It?

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The New York Times reports that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.),  a "Tea Party heroine," plans to challenge Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) for the post of GOP conference chair, the fourth-highest House leadership position, in the new Congress. According to the Times, "her candidacy vividly illustrates the central tension facing [incoming House Speaker John] Boehner and his team: balancing the demands of new lawmakers, some of whom ran against the Republican establishment and advocate a no-compromise stance toward the Obama administration and Democratic policies, against the need to deliver some accomplishments at a time of economic distress." Honestly, I'm not sure what that means, but the thrust of the story is that Bachmann represents bold newcomers supported by the Tea Party while Hensarling represents the wishy-washy old guard.

The first problem with this portrayal is that Bachmann has been in Congress since 2007, only four fewer years than Hensarling. The second problem is that the Tea Party is supposed to be motivated, first and foremost, by concerns about runaway government spending and the escalating federal debt, and Hensarling has a stronger record as a fiscal conservative than Bachmann does. Both voted against  Obama's stimulus package, the legislation that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the auto industry bailout backed by the Bush administration. Hensarling did vote f

or Bush's reckless expansion of Medicare in 2003, but Bachmann was not a member of Congress then, so we don't know which way she would have voted. In Hensarling's favor, he opposes earmarks in both theory and practice, while Bachmann has managed only the former. Her stand against wasteful, unjustified spending is also belied by the agricultural subsidies her family farm has received. As you may have heard, she is also a bit of a loon, which may be the main reason the Times sees her as a more authentic embodiment of the Tea Party's concerns.

In 2007, the year Bachmann took her seat in the House, Dave Weigel profiled Hensarling as a "reformer" fighting "the old guard":

Hensarling, the newly elected chairman of the anti-tax, anti-spending Republican Study Committee, is a man obsessed with the budget. In the waning days of the Republican majority, Hensarling supported "alternative" budgets that were smaller than the GOP's own, including one with $103 billion in highway spending cuts, $630 billion in tax cuts, and a phase-out of Medicaid.

"When he was in the majority he was willing to vote against the rules, which is the absolute defiance of GOP leadership," says Redstate.com's [Erick] Erickson. "If you think they're willing to spend that much money, taking that kind of a stand against them is something you can only do if you're willing to be not liked."

In short, with the notable exception of his Medicare vote (a flaw shared by almost all of the Republican leaders who now claim to be budget cutters), Hensarling seems to be just the sort of legislator fiscal conservatives should want to see in a position of power. Assuming that the Tea Partiers' preference for Bachmann, who seems not terribly bright and longer on rhetoric than action, is not merely a figment of her imagination, what good are they?