What kind of defense does the Tea Party support?

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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The Tea Party takes clear positions on government spending and regulation: It wants less of both. But on national security, its position is less clear.

In the face of deepening criticism from her Tea Party opponent for being a Big Government Republican, in August, write-in candidate and Senate Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) convinced Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to gut a small but important bill which would have expanded the authority of the federal government to protect our country’s electric grid from solar storms and electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attacks.

The GRID Act, which unanimously passed the House of Representatives in June, would have authorized the federal government to require public utility companies to harden the country’s most critical electrical systems in the event of a likely disaster. The cost of doing just the minimal amount necessary to avert a catastrophe has been estimated at $100 million — barely an asterisk in a $4 trillion budget — and would have made it more difficult for a rogue state like Iran or a strategic competitor like China to disable the country’s power grid.

An EMP caused by a high-altitude nuclear explosion would kill thousands, if not millions, of Americans due to starvation, lack of medical care, and the crime that would result in the absence of effective law enforcement and emergency response services. The National Academies of Sciences warns that it would cost the United States as much as $2 trillion and take as long as a decade to recover from such a disaster.

Communication systems would fail. Cars would screech to a halt on the freeway. Critical medical technologies would become useless. And so would water purification, heating and cooling equipment.

In 2008, a bipartisan commission of highly respected physicists produced a sobering assessment of the threat. The following year, the EMP Commission chairman, Dr. William Graham, testified before Congress that a determined adversary can mount an EMP attack without very sophisticated weapons. A state or terrorist group would no longer need a long-range ballistic missile to conduct an EMP attack against the United States. It could loft a nuclear warhead to high altitude from a freighter off the U.S. coast using only a short or medium-range missile like those Hezbollah has.

Iran actually tested such an attack in 2006 by exploding a Shahab-3 medium range missile in mid-flight, and the EMP Commission found that Russia, China, and North Korea also include EMP in their military doctrines. Indeed, China’s Cyber Warfare Doctrine explicitly states that the country’s military strategy is designed to achieve global “electronic dominance’’ by 2050, including the capability to disrupt the enemy’s power grid prior to conventional military operations.

In response to these threats, the commission provided numerous recommendations, one of which was to define the federal government’s responsibility and authority to protect private electrical systems — the main thrust of the GRID Act.

In 2009, another bipartisan congressional group — the Strategic Posture Commission, chaired by former Secretaries of Defense James Schlesinger and William Perry — also supported the EMP Commission’s findings and urged that Congress immediately act on its recommendations. The Department of Energy followed suit in June 2010.

With such overwhelming evidence of our vulnerability, it is inexcusable to delay implementing the EMP Commission’s recommendations. Regardless of its political makeup after next week, Congress should reintroduce and pass the GRID Act.

The Tea Party has demonstrated an impressive devotion to constitutionalism, but in its fervor to curb spending and regulation, it sometimes forgets that the Constitution describes a federal government whose first responsibility is to provide for the common defense. Sometimes that requires more money and more authority.

Most Tea Party affiliates support strong national defenses, and many may even support initiatives like the GRID Act, but if they do, they don’t say so. Governing comes with greater responsibilities than campaigning. For the sake of our security, let’s hope the Tea Partiers recognize that there are some things Americans expect of their government, and national security is one of them.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.