Every interest group in town is vying for the attention of the super committee members except the very movement that drove the federal deficit to the top of Congress’ agenda.
Tea party leaders can be found this fall hawking a Constitution-themed coloring book, riding a tour bus across the country and endorsing 2012 candidates — but not issuing policy proposals for cutting the deficit.
“It’s generally not what we do,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which is leading a campaign to encourage schools to teach lessons drawn from the Constitution. “We are an organization that’s designed to push the debate toward fiscal responsibility. Our job is not to come up with policies.”
Tea party activists won political credibility for being an impressive populist force. But in the absence of something specific to oppose, they have mostly fallen silent as a Congressional panel tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings begins its work.
Even though tea party activists cannot be found roaming the Capitol halls with savings proposals in hand, their influence was palpable last week when conservative House lawmakers abandoned a proposed stopgap spending measure, embarrassing top GOP leaders with a failed floor vote and forcing them to find a last-minute additional $100 million cut.
“[Tea partyers] are meeting at home and engaging there,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who voted against both versions of the spending bill. “I don’t think it matters where they are or what you call them.”
George Behan, spokesman for Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), agreed. “Their imprint is on both the super committee and the leadership,” he said. “They’ve done their damage.”
“The tea party deserves credit for bringing the issue of the debt and deficit to the forefront as did [presidential candidate Ross] Perot in the ’90s,” said John Pitney, who studies Republican Congressional and electoral politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Now that it’s time to identify specific cuts, that’s not something that this political movement is well-equipped to do.”
When it comes to voicing dissatisfaction, however, the activists are quick on the draw.
“By holding [lawmakers’] feet to the fire, we will be able to kill Obama’s stimulus bill,” Todd Cefaratti, founder of TheTeaParty.net, wrote in an email to supporters sent just hours after President Barack Obama detailed his jobs proposal earlier this month. “We’ve already sent 162,000 letters to Congress demanding that they declare this bill dead on arrival.”
And should the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction come up with a proposal that includes any kind of tax increases, conservatives in Washington, D.C., expect tea partyers to come out in full force.
“I will not be surprised at all if we are able to get them up here if the super committee is getting ready to produce tax increases,” said Tim Chapman, chief operating office of Heritage Action for America.
In part, the activists said they don’t want to engage yet because that would be a validation of the super committee idea, which they described as a Washington powerplay at its finest.
“We said after the 2010 election that it was going to be a holding pattern until 2012 when we can replace the Democrats in the Senate and the president,” said Sal Russo, the Republican operative behind Tea Party Express. “It’s hard to see how that super committee is going to make much progress.”
But while tea party groups rail against the notion of consolidation of power in a few longtime Washington hands, old-guard conservative groups and lobbyists are presenting ideas for the 12-member panel to consider.
The National Taxpayers Union, a 40-year-old conservative group, has outlined 54 programs, subsidies and government inefficiencies that it says the super committee should trim. And the Heritage Foundation has released a savings plan that its lobbying arm will push on the Hill.
“Any damn fool can sit there and knock things down every day,” said former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who chaired the Appropriations Committee from 2007 to 2010 and now works at a lobbying firm founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). “It takes a more thoughtful person to try to put things together. … [Tea partyers] seem to think it’s a sin to compromise.”
But David Kirkham, a tea party leader from Utah who is considering challenging Sen. Orrin Hatch in the state’s Republican primary, insisted some tea partyers are willing to negotiate.
“We cannot just hold rallies and complain,” he said. “We must solve and offer rational solutions. Any law that doesn’t have bipartisan support has problems.”
Kirkham is part of a 12-member “citizen debt commission” that was set up in June by FreedomWorks, the Washington-based conservative group run by former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) that has claimed the tea party banner.
The citizen panel held its first conference call Wednesday night and has 11 field meetings scheduled in key states such as Florida, Ohio and Indiana in the coming weeks. Nearly half of the meetings will be held in Utah, where FreedomWorks is working to unseat Hatch.
The goal is to come up with a plan that reduces the national debt by at least $9 trillion and deliver it to Congress by Thanksgiving — in time to counter whatever the deficit committee presents to Congress for a vote.
“We’re not really trying to influence the super committee,” said Dean Clancy, legislative counsel and vice president of health care policy at FreedomWorks. “We want to influence Congress’ deliberations in December. … The 2012 election is upon us and we are not going to get much more out of this Congress.”