Is The Tea Party Killing Real Budget Reform? Or Just the GOP?


Bruce Bartlett thinks so. The maverick economist, who worked for Ronald Reagan and Ron Paul, lost a think tank gig way back when for suggesting at book length that George W. Bush was an "impostor" when it came to laissez-faire economic policy (read Reason's excerpt of the book here), thinks the GOP is "blowing it" by pandering to Tea Party activists.

They are rapidly using up their limited political capital for getting control of the budget on trivial spending cuts, such asdefunding National Public Radio, that will have no long-term impact. Furthermore, we know from experience that the public's support for budget cuts quickly ran out in 1981, leading inevitably to tax increases. And according to a February16 Harris poll, there is less support for spending cuts today than there was back then.

Although Republicans today are confident that they will retake the Senate and the White House next year, I think their current strategy of pandering to Tea Party extremists is undermining these hopes. Polls show Democrats up for reelection next year, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, to be rapidly improving their chances. And Republicans should remember that one reason they controlled the White House during most of the postwar era is that the American people don't really trust either party to control the entire government. Moreover, the lousy job Republicans did when they controlled Congress and the White House from 2001 to 2006 is still a recent memory.

Bartlett's right that wasting time on public broadcasting cuts while we don't even have a real budget for this very fiscal year is pretty silly. And he's argued elsewhere that extracting ounces of flesh from short-term continuing resolutions means that the GOP isn't coming up with a really strong budget proposal for fiscal 2012. And he's right that many of today's paragons of smaller spending have dubious votes in their recent legislative pasts:

This year, Medicare Part D will add about $55 billion to the deficit – far more than can be saved with all the budget cuts Republicans can possibly hope to achieve in fiscal 2011. Furthermore, it annoys me to see so many of those who voted for Medicare Part D, such as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), treated as if they are paragons of fiscal responsibility. In fact, their concern for excessive spending is highly selective, directed almost entirely at programs supported by Democrats primarily to undercut their political support, not because they care so much about deficits.

This is all true. Yet Bartlett's column is built around Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the second-generation firebrand who didn't even mention the GOP during his election night speech back in November. Bartlett fails to address the most basic question his column raises: Is Rand Paul a problem? Here's a guy whose commitment to reducing spending and government overreach is unquestionable. Here's a guy who since coming to office has offered up $500 billion in immediate cuts and a five-year plan to balance the budget. He's a Tea Party fave who is not insane, who doesn't care about ACORN or think that Obama is a secret anything. And yet Bartlett, who quotes favorably from Paul's new book (and is in fact quoted in it), doesn't say whether Rand Paul is destroying the GOP by delivering exactly what he was elected to do: suggest serious, viable ways to limit government spending and control of our daily lives.

If the GOP must die for Rand Paul to live, well, that's not even a choice.

Bartlett's col is here. His Fiscal Times columns and blog posts are always worth reading.

Check out Reason's interview with Paul, conducted by Matt Welch and me earlier this week: