As he keeps demonstrating, President Obama is not exactly Mount Rushmore material. But — good God! — the petulant pettiness and corporate servility of Congress’ tea party Republicans makes Obama’s timidity seem like a chapter from Profiles In Courage.
America has BIG needs right now–a jobs crisis, housing crisis, infrastructure crisis, energy crisis, climate crisis, middle-class crisis, democracy crisis. But they can’t even be addressed because tea party ravers in the House, joined there by a gaggle of old school right-wingers, keep throwing hissy fits over far-out ideological gimcrackery.
Our problem in Washington really comes down to this: We have too many 5-watt bulbs in 100-watt sockets. Take, for example, the astonishing clamoring by tea party congress critters to pass a light bulb bill. Yes, light bulbs! In July, these addle-brained lawmakers actually spent time, energy, and their credibility on stopping the horrible scourge of energy efficient bulbs from spreading across the country.
This non-issue was literally drummed up by the billionaire Koch brothers (who, by the way, are in the dirty energy business and profit if you have to use more of it to light your home). During the past couple of years, various Koch front groups have been shrieking that nanny-state Democrats have banned Thomas Edison’s old, glowing 100-watt incandescent globes. As of next January 1, they wailed, sales of Edison’s marvel will be outlawed, replaced by the cold glare emitted by spiral, fluorescent bulbs.
Only, none of that is true. There is no ban, just a new standard for all bulbs to consume less energy. And it was not set by Democrats, but by a Republican-sponsored law signed in 2007 by George W. Bush. Furthermore, the light bulb industry backed the new efficiency standard. “Everyone supported it,” says a top executive of bulb-maker Philips. So did Edison’s descendants, who issued a simple statement that old Tom himself could’ve written: “Technology changes. Embrace it.”
Plus, the new law shows that government rule-making can work beautifully, producing a major surge in industry innovation. In only four years, Philips, GE, and Sylvania have already developed incandescent bulbs that meet the government’s higher efficiency standard and save money for consumers.
Nonetheless, such dim bulbs as Michele Bachmann, along with the tea party caucus, joined the Kochs’ silly circus. They merrily rolled the bizarre anti-efficiency light bulb bill right through the House. Luckily the Senate won’t pass this folderol, so it won’t become law, but that won’t stop congressional tea partiers from continuing their goofy rant against big government “telling us what kind of light bulbs we can buy.”
Name the names
Meanwhile, America’s corporate media have surrendered any semblance of journalistic responsibility in covering the tea party congress. On the one hand, they treat the slightest sneeze from these lawmakers as a powerful storm. For example, on July 27 the Koch-backed astroturf group, the Tea Party Express, held a “Hold the Line” media event on the Capitol grounds. It was promoted as a mass rally to demand that Congress slash trillions of dollars from the federal deficit through spending cuts alone, with no tax hikes on billionaires and corporations.
News cameras were there to record and report every bon mot tossed out by such tea party favorites as Sens. Jim DeMint and Rand Paul. They did not report, however, that fewer than 50 of the expected masses showed up (see a great photo of DeMint at the “rally” speaking, essentially, to no one but the cameras: www.flickr.com/photos/58372028@N00/5981973020).
The next day, the progressive American Dream Movement drew a crowd ten times larger to another Capitol Hill rally, demanding that Congress protect seniors from the budget slashers and, instead, eliminate special tax giveaways to corporations and the rich. No cameras came to cover the message of these citizens.
On the other hand, the media establishment is failing even to give the public an answer to journalism’s most basic question: Who? Name by name, who are these tea partiers casting votes to harm workaday people, further enrich the rich, and extend greater corporate power over us? We can’t have an informed electorate if it’s not informed.
Many tea party activists themselves could benefit from this information. The rank and file assume that the crop of outsiders they sent to Congress are now inside representing their interests. But most would be stunned to know that their “representative” has voted to kill Medicare, gut Social Security, protect Wall Street speculators, and turn our natural resources over to polluting profiteers. A big chunk of the tea party nation did vote in 2010 for smaller government–but not this.
The media, however, only generalize that tea party Republicans are doing this or that, failing to deliver such useful specifics as: “Hey, the goober you sent to Congress just stabbed you in the back.” On July 28, for example, the New York Times ran an important article about the wholesale assault on environmental protections by “freshman Republicans,” not even mentioning that these are tea partiers. The members were attaching some 70 pro-polluter amendments to an appropriations bill–including unleashing coal giants to blow up Appalachia’s mountains, allowing uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, exempting offshore oil drillers from any accountability for their equipment failures, blocking all agencies from doing research on climate change, letting industrial corporations escape from even reporting their carbon pollution, and stopping the EPA from so much as studying pollution by factory farms.
But, no names of the members sponsoring this stuff were reported. In America’s democratic system, it’s not enough to say “Congress” did this, or even “tea party” legislators did it. Name the names, so they have to be accountable for what they’re doing. At a minimum the news outlets could put the names on their websites.
This is important for all voters, but especially for those who thought that electing this tea party bunch would help end a business-as-usual Congress controlled by corporate money and lobbyists. After all, the tea party insurgency was not sparked by a hatred of government, but by raw fury at Republicans and Democrats alike for coddling the Wall Street banksters who crashed their casino emporiums into our economy. Arrogant and avaricious bankers were handed multibillion dollar bailouts in 2008-2009, while workaday Americans were being handed pink slips and eviction notices.
This daylight robbery definitely put the “ugh” in ugly, and it brought the public’s general anger about collusion between corporate and political elites into sharp focus. That political moment held bright promise for progressive populism, but it quickly dissipated. Progressive funders, organizations, and media (enthralled by the new Obama presidency and concentrating on Washington) did little outreach to the bubbling rebellion in the countryside, leaving the field to right-wing exploiters.
Armey gets an army
As a result, the tea party uprising was soon hijacked and transformed into anti-populism. The key player was Dick Armey. A former GOP majority leader in the House, he was a well connected corpo-rate lobbyist for tobacco giants, drug corporations, and others when he noticed reports in early 2009 of some mad-as-hellers brandish- ing tea bags at a few scattered protests. Armey also was head of a Koch-financed political shop called FreedomWorks. “Eureka!” this career Washington insider must have shouted as he scurried from his opulent office to get in front of this fledgling movement of unattached outsiders.
The tea bag crowd loathed insiders, but Armey has a good line of B.S.–and he came with a rich goodie bag, including: ample Koch money, an experienced PR machine, savvy Republican political operatives… and a simple, ready-made agenda for diverting the angry crowds’ attention from Wall Street to the bugaboo of Big Government.
With no real competition, Armey established himself as the de facto commanding general of the disjointed tea party army. He created the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots as astroturf fronts for orchestrating some 600 “tax day” protests on April 15, 2009, creating the image of mass opposition to Obama’s health care reforms.
Next came the raucous summer shout-fests choreographed by Armey’s team at several town hall meetings, which unsuspecting congressional Democrats had scheduled in their home districts. A FreedomWorks memo schooled local troops (mostly GOP activists) on how to disrupt these usually genial gatherings: “Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive…. Watch for an opportunity to yell out…. Have some-one else follow-up with a shout-out…. The goal is to rattle him.”
Then, in August, a defining “Tea Party Manifesto” emerged, asserting that the diffused rebellion had coalesced into a national movement with hard-core right-wing principles. It proclaimed adamant opposition to “government… high taxes… state government employees… [and] a government-defined health insurance plan.” Who wrote the manifesto? Not grassroots folks, but Dick Armey and his top staffer at FreedomWorks. The purpose of the movement, declared the document, is “a hostile takeover” of the Republican Party.
Thus, the rebellion against corporate control of government became a CEO’s wet dream: a grassroots constituency unwittingly harnessed to a laissez-faire agenda for establishing a corporate plutocracy over the people.
On the opening day of Congress last January, beaming members of the new Republican majority entered the House chamber. But also entering triumphantly for the swearing-in ceremonies was David Koch, the multibillionaire laissez-faire extremist who bankrolled much of the tea party Republicans’ victory last fall. What symbolism! The members were taking office, but Koch and his corporate peers were taking power.
The fresh-faced outsiders quickly morphed into cynical insiders. While they’ve taken noisy public stands against deficit spending, they’ve quietly functioned as plodding mules for hauling the corpo- rate wish list through the House. Some examples:
- In an astonishing case of tone deaf overreach, Rep. Paul Ryan, a tea party endorsee last year and now the House budget chairman, proposed to privatize Medicare and slash its health care payouts to seniors by two-thirds. This would be a windfall for insurance corporations, and it’s a top priority of kill-the-government Koch-heads. Ironically, most tea party candidates for Congress in 2010 had bashed “Obamacare” by falsely claiming that it would require “massive cuts” in this very popular, efficient, and effective Medicare program–all but two tea partiers voted with Ryan to destroy it. As one observer said, “it’s a measure of just how far off the deep end Republicans have gone.” That was no lefty talking, but David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director.
- A few days after voting against granny’s health care, the GOP (including all tea partiers) did vote to help one of the neediest among us: Big Oil. With gasoline at $4 a gallon and oil profits soaring, Democrats suggested that the annual $4 billion taxpayer subsidy for the oil giants should be eliminated. “No,” said all 241 Republicans–with not a single dissent from tea party lawmakers, who otherwise decry “entitlement” programs.
- Just like the old Congress, money talks in this ‘new’ one, and the tea party crew is eagerly snagging checks from corporate lobbyists. Steve Stivers of Ohio, for one, landed a coveted seat on the financial services subcommittee, and–shazam!–nearly $100,000 in campaign cash fell into his lap in just his first eight weeks–85 percent of it from financiers his committee oversees. Steve is now carrying two bills that those interests really, really want passed. One would kill a Wall Street reform requiring banks to disclose the difference in pay between CEOs and average employees. The other exempts billionaire private equity hucksters from regulation. Sheltering greedheaded banksters–is that what the tea party rebellion was about?
- How about sheltering children from dangerous toys? Just a few years ago, marketers like Mattel had to pull made-in-China toys, cribs, etc… off the shelves because they contained lead, toxic paint, and other dangers. Responding to public outrage, a bipartisan congressional majority voted in 2008 to beef up the staffing and authority of the then-dormant Consumer Product Safety Commission, giving it a firm mandate to protect our children. In one excellent reform, CPSC set up an easily accessible database so parents themselves can report product hazards or read injury reports. Great–it’s effective, consumer-driven, and in-expensive! Kill it, squawked industry lobbyists this year, calling it a government intrusion into the marketplace. The tea party’s Mike Pompeo of Kansas sponsored an amendment to cut all funding for CPSC’s database. Not for nothing is Pompeo called the “Congressman from Koch.” His Wichita business was financed by a Koch Industries subsidiary, he was a trustee for a Koch think tank in Kansas, the Koch PAC was his campaign’s top donor (by far) last year, David Koch’s own front group (Americans For Prosperity) organized and mobilized tea party support for Pompeo, and a Koch lobbyist is now Pompeo’s chief of staff in Washington. Mike’s amendment passed 234 to 187, enjoying full tea party support.
Reading the tea leaves
Armey’s “hostile takeover” of the GOP is effectively complete. Such old right-wing reliables as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah have jerked themselves even harder to the right this year: “I was tea party before it was cool,” he recently asserted, clearly worried that he might face a primary challenger from the tea wing. Speaker John Boehner, long the proper corporatist, has been twisted into some very uncomfortable policy positions by this caucus, which has been dubbed “Boehner’s Migraine.” And the Republican presidential primary is not merely tilted to the right, it has fallen off the cliff into extreme, religious-like, right-wing fanaticism.
Is this because that’s what Americans want? Has the American electorate really gone nuts, demanding the policies that tea party Republicans are insisting on? No.
Rank and file tea partiers themselves are beginning to say, “This is not what we meant.” As one supporter in Texas put it: “It can’t just be kill everything. It’s certainly not kill my investments.” In fact, a CBS poll in July found two-thirds of the movement’s supporters favoring compromise on the debt ceiling conflagration, 53 percent saying some tax increases were needed, and most saying that the most important need is not spending cuts, but jobs.
Meanwhile, the Bachmann-Perry-DeMint-Cantor style of goofy and strident tea partyism is poisoning the movement’s own tea. In April 2010, when Armey began his Koch coup, only 18 percent of the public had an unfavorable view of the activists. That has now more than doubled. In an August 16 New York Times piece, independent analysts David Campbell and Robert Putnam report that the tea party ranks lower in popularity than all of the 23 other groups in the survey -including Republicans, Democrats, and atheists!
The one group that gets similarly high negatives is the Christian right. That’s significant, because the tea party that Armey has organized turns out now to be made up largely of longtime Republican partisans and the usual fundamentalist Christian political groups that want God running government–a position that repels most Americans.
For progressives and true populists, our need is not to wring our hands about their movement, but to work more urgently than ever to expand our own. Koch-flavored tea is failing, but that doesn’t mean we gain–unless we take to the countryside, offer- ing a genuine, anti-plutocratic, outsider alternative to the co-opted tea party, hopeless Republicans, and cowed Democrats.