From Soapbox to the Floor
How will the Tea Party freshmen–with their utopian small-government views–actually govern?
In politics, 2010 was the year of the Tea Party. What looked at first like a Fox News–hyped, one-time protest on Tax Day 2009 grew into a midterm movement that almost every Republican in the country wanted a part of—including the likes of Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, longtime politicians cozy with big business. It became hard to tell which candidates could genuinely be classified as “Tea Party” and who was just along for the ride. It became equally difficult to discern what the Tea Party stood for.
But come Nov. 2, the details hardly mattered. As long as you had an “R” next to your name, you stood a good chance of winning—especially in Texas. Republicans gained 22 seats in the Texas House and now hold a historic 101–49 majority in the lower chamber of the state Legislature.
Many Republican newcomers won by identifying themselves, whether intimately or rhetorically, with the Tea Party. Like most Tea Partiers, they focused their campaign messages on what they didn’t like, namely the federal government. But it’s notoriously hard to shrink federal spending from a seat in the Texas Legislature. And it’s not clear, now that they’ve been elected, what the newbies plan to do with their power.
We do know that many of them are committed to cutting government spending they can control. And they’ll certainly have their opportunity: Texas faces a biennial shortfall of $27 billion. The Tea Party freshmen have made plain their intention to close the budget gap without raising taxes.
But what exactly will they try to cut? It’s easy to talk about shrinking government in the abstract, to blithely say that government needs to be more “efficient.” It’s something else entirely to vote to lay off public schoolteachers, or to kick elderly people out of nursing homes. How will the Tea Partiers react when they must move beyond their utopian campaign rhetoric into the realpolitik of the legislative session that starts Jan. 11? How will these anti-establishment candidates govern from within the system? And how will they change the way Republicans operate—and get along?
To get some answers, we interviewed four incoming Republican House members who ran as Tea Partiers: David Simpson, who owns a lumber business in Longview; Connie Scott, an activist from Corpus Christi; James White, the East Texas teacher who ousted longtime Democratic state Rep. Jim McReynolds; and Charles Perry, an accountant from Lubbock. What follows are excerpts from those conversations. All interviews were done before the Comptroller’s office released its official budget deficit estimate of $27 billion.
Politics: “I developed my philosophy of government apart from the Tea Party. They kind of adopted me, and I am very appreciative of what they’ve been doing. I would describe them not so much as Republican as constitutional and anti-establishment. In that sense I fit right in.
“I think there’s a tendency in all of us—and it’s in both parties—to just protect power. I don’t think in terms of right and left or Democrat and Republican so much as that the power should be with the people. And people do need government to keep us from injuring one another, but if we don’t control the government, the government will injure the people. It happens you know with people when they’re elected with good aspirations and I fear this even myself: that once you’re in power, you tend to protect that power instead of the people that elected you.”
“I want to live in the fear of God. And to put that positively, I want to please him. In Leviticus 19 and verse 14 it says, ‘You shall not curse the dead, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear the Lord your God. I am the Lord.’ Politicians tend to do what they can get away with, but one of the things that keeps me from entering into such an arrangement is the fear of God.”
Budget: “That’s probably the most important issue. It’s also, in my opinion, an opportunity to do right and shrink the size of government to its proper, limited role. If you go back to 2003 when we had our last budget crisis, government has increased, I believe, by about 53 percent. If we’d have capped government growth spending to inflation and population growth, it would only have grown about 27 percent.
“I think first of all we need to get rid of corporate welfare to major corporations, Fortune 500, Fortune 1,000 companies, before we get rid of welfare for the poor and weak. In my opinion Texas is free enough: It’s not as free as I want to see it, but is attractive enough because of its freedom and its marketplace not to have to place additional incentives for companies to relocate to Texas or want to operate here. We don’t have to give corporate Washington-style subsidies.
“I know there are going to be a lot of Republicans, probably including the governor, who would disagree with me. But I believe Texas is attractive enough without government subsidies, which in my opinion is legalized theft.”
Welfare: “I think the more local a program can be the better it is. Ultimately that’s why it’s better on a family or individual basis. i’m all for helping the poor in an appropriate way, but you really want to get at the core fo the problem, and sometimes it’s not so much the lack of ability to work as the willingness to work. And a person or a family can figure that out better than a government agency, and if it is going to be a government agency, it needs to be a local agency, not a federal agency. So the farther you move from personal accountability, the less efficiency and the more waste is incurred. But if you know your neighbor who needs a job, you’ll help him. But if you’re just a number on a government payroll, it’s a whole lot easier to do the wrong thing and for that person receiving the benefits to take advantage of the program. I don’t doubt that the federal agencies and federal programs and even some state programs are well intended. I just question whether that’s the right prerogative of government it should be an individual and family responsibility and neighborly responsibility, not a government one. And we can’t do that overnight but we can move incrementally in that direction.”
Immigration: “What we’re doing, by allowing the illegal immigration, is setting us up for failure, because of course they’re not going to do things legally and they’re going to be a burden upon education, health and incarceration systems. I think we need to make it easier to come here and work temporarily, and we need to stop the illegal immigration with tougher enforcement.”
Politics: “I guess I would describe myself as a kind of Tea Party representative in the sense that I am a constitutionalist. I’m absolutely for fiscal conservatism. I believe in the 10th Amendment.”
Budget: “I don’t have any specific plans that I’m willing to share right now with anyone. I would not want to cut education. I think K-12 public education is a constitutional duty. I think government, really, and state agencies—they need to streamline, to work more efficiently with less.
“It’s going to be painful and difficult for those of us who have to vote on those kinds of decisions. And we as legislators need to be mindful of the kind of individuals that are going to feel the pain of those cuts.”
Medicaid: “I’m not sure if you would consider it cuts, but I think that’s something that will have to be very closely looked at. I think some of the projections of the future show that if we don’t make some changes, that Medicaid and education are the only things the state budget’s going to be able to fund in the future. I wouldn’t be willing to say that I’m ready to completely pull out of that. I think I need quite a bit more information. I need to sit down before I say that.”
Politics: “I think there’s al-ways been this friction within the GOP—as in all political parties—between the so-called establishment and the more principled, issue-oriented wing or side of the party. I’m just going to stick with what got me here: restore East Texas jobs, revitalize economic prosperity, protect and secure borders. I don’t really see myself up there as Tea Party or Republican. I’ve enjoyed a considerable amount of Tea Party support, but those three points I just stated—that’s what I’m going to Austin to support.”
Budget: “I would first go after and cut things that are not specifically mandated for the state government to do in the state constitution. That would be the first thing for me to go into, as a constitutionalist. I don’t think we need to raise revenue. Let me back up. I think we do need to raise revenue. And this is how you raise revenue: You have to keep your eyes focused on the right ball, and the right ball is the reason we have a revenue problem is because we have a spending problem. Now how do you deal with this spending problem? Well, you’ve got to go in and make choices. How do you deal with the revenue problem? Well, you have to restore jobs. That means you have to facilitate and enable job creators that will create jobs because they see an opportunity out there to produce goods and services and those new jobs will create workers who will become revenue payers, and they will pay extra revenue.
“I say we raise revenue by, you know, restoring liberty, restoring economic growth. That’s how you raise revenue.”
“I would say let’s change the language. Everyone’s talking about budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. A budget cut is one technique in order to achieve budget efficiencies, which we should be doing even if we were $28 billion in the black, okay? We should be trying to get efficiencies all the time. So a budget cut is one technique. You can eliminate agencies. There are a host of things you can do in order to close the shortfall and be more efficient with the next budget cycle.”
Immigration: “I’m not anti-immigration. I think our country has benefited from the reinvigorating spirit of immigrations. I just say let’s do it right. If a business entity wants to take advantage of immigrant labor, let’s come up with the mechanisms to make that happen within the laws of our country and our state.”
Tea Party vs. GOP: “At the platform level, there’s not differences as a practical matter. I’d say the Republican Party has moved off the platform, [which is] where the grassroots tea-party-slash-conservative folks is. I think people just lost sight of what the platform says about pro-life, pro-family, pro-business fiscal responsibility. That’s what Republicans believe. They just kind of stopped practicing them over the years.”
Budget: “There’s no ‘easy’ this time. Every line item in the state budget, every line item with minimal exceptions, affects every city and district that we operate in. So I’ve told my constituents and I think honestly … that everybody is going to have to make a sacrifice. I don’t see any area of the budget that’s not going to have some reductions. As we prioritize in our state budget, it’s pretty clear that we’ve got education and entitlement programs as the top two. I don’t see that changing a lot as far as prioritization. I do see how we deliver those services hopefully being more efficient.
“It’s going to hurt. There is no way to get around it at these levels, at this cut, you will affect direct services or core services to a certain degree. The key is you can affect them a little bit and give them longevity and not do something that’s going to have permanent impact.”
Schools: “I’m open to discussing all of the options. I think we have to discuss all options. I would prefer to remove unfunded mandates off the local school systems so that they are having a little bit easier time with dealing with the shortfall, because they’ve already taken some beating on the property values. Property values have decreased over the last two years. They got that beating on the local level. So we’ve gotta allow them the flexibility to get rid of some of the stuff that was probably well-intentioned but has cost them money locally. As we do that it allows us as a state to re-allocate our funds a little more effectively.”
“Public ed has already taken a pretty heavy cut. They took five percent, and how much more do they have to go? I don’t know until we get the numbers from the comptroller. Every level of budget is gonna have cuts.”
Medicaid: “I’ve been studying and trying to beef up and bone up in the Medicaid environment. I see Medicaid becoming the biggest budget item if we don’t do something different with Medicaid. With that said, we cannot opt out of Medicaid tomorrow. That’s not feasible. But Medicaid is going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room that’s got to be dealt with or it’s going to consume our budget. We have to come up with a way to do that delivery better. I don’t have the answer to that, but I’m working on it. I’m looking at it. I’ve got some ideas.”