David Brooks is mad at Republicans. Again. In particular, he is perturbed by the Tea Party, a group he dismisses as “a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” The reason, apparently, is that the Tea Party is making negotiations on raising the debt ceiling difficult. Rather than take a deal hobbled together by President Obama and the Democrats, some are looking for real reforms.
The Tea Party, a political movement that has pushed fiscal responsibility to the top of the list of political priorities, is wary of the deal being pushed by President Obama and Harry Reid. After examining the current state of negotiations, these concerns appear well placed and raise questions that Mr. Brooks blithely overlooks as he suggests that Republicans should take the deal currently on the table. After all, it provides roughly $3 in cuts for every $1 in tax increases. And the cuts are in the range of $2 trillion to $4 trillion.
Yet a closer look at the deal suggests it may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Brooks claims that the revenue increases will not affect marginal rates, instead targeting loopholes and tax expenditures that distort the tax code. I’m sure most Tea Party activists would agree that the current tax code is an abomination and should be scrapped for something that is fairer, flatter and simpler. But the tax changes in the current deal do nothing to reform the code or change the incentives of the army of tax lawyers and lobbyists that feed on the code; the fight for tax breaks and special treatment will continue unabated in the next session of Congress. It is not likely that powerful interests will agree to a moratorium on the pursuit of advantageous treatment under the tax code, and the creativity of highly paid lawyers should not be underestimated. Instead of playing Whack-a-Mole with the tax code, we should be fundamentally reforming it.
Even more disconcerting, however, are the discussions of spending cuts. Yes, President Obama and the Democrats are tossing big numbers around. Trillions in spending cuts to right the ship and restore fiscal order. But are those cuts real? Will they restore a degree fiscal responsibility? Mr. Brooks offers no answer, but this is the question that most interests the Tea Party. And upon closer examination, the numbers don’t quite add up. Unlike the tax hikes, which would be immediate, the spending cuts occur over time — a long time. In the best-case scenario, the budget balances in 10 years, well beyond the next election cycle.
Rather than a bold solution to fiscal irresponsibility, the budget deal that so many are anxious to embrace is little more than politics as usual, kicking the problem down the road and into the laps of the next generation. The actions of today’s politicians have no binding effect on future Congresses, which would be responsible for carrying out the spending reforms included in the agreement. Given the history of federal spending, how legitimate is it to assume that the promised spending cuts will ever be implemented? And in the meantime, the entitlement programs will consume an ever-increasing share of the federal budget.
The Tea Party is seeking a meaningful end to the fiscal crisis, and that means significant and immediate spending cuts, institutional changes such as a balanced-budget amendment that will redefine the culture of spending in Washington and an honest discussion about reforming entitlements, which are the most significant driver of spending in Washington, D.C. Fortunately there are some in Congress who agree with these ideas. In fact, more than 100 members of Congress have signed the “Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge,” calling for real fiscal reforms based on principles similar to those endorsed by the Tea Party. These reforms address the current crisis immediately, not at some undefined point beyond the political time horizon.
Contrary to assertion, the Tea Party is not the party that does not know how to govern. The Tea Party did not run up the $14 trillion debt; it is the coalition that is seeking to tame that debt. Global markets are more concerned about out-of-control government spending than they are about whether an arbitrary debt ceiling is breached. The federal government has some serious choices to make, and there is a unique opportunity to make fundamental changes to the culture of spending that defines Washington. Cut, Cap and Balance is a real reform alternative that should not be dismissed as an impediment to compromise. It’s an important step towards re-establishing fiscal order, with a focus on balanced budgets. And following up with fundamental tax reform wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
Matt Kibbe is president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a nationwide grassroots organization fighting for lower taxes, less government and freedom and the author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.