The Tea Party's Impact on National Politics

Article excerpt

THE "TEA PARTY" MOVEMENT, STARTED IN 2009 as a conservative reaction to a Democratic-controlled Congress and Presidency, has helped center the national political debate on deficit reduction. The November R010 election, which shifted control of the House to Republicans and diminished the Democrats' majority in the Senate, resulted in nearly 100 Republican freshmen representatives and senators. Many of these new members were elected with significant tea party support, and nearly all support sizeable cuts to the federal budget. Since the 112th Congress began in January, these demands for budget cuts have reverberated through Capitol Hill, turning nearly every legislative effort into a referendum on federal spending.

As a result, the first 10 months of 2011 have found leading Republicans and Democrats agreeing on the importance of spending cuts, even as they fought bitterly over the extent and source of those cuts. Debate over FY 2011 funding levels lasted through April, eight months after the fiscal year officially began, and included more than 60 hours of debates in the House centered around H.R. 1, the House's proposed FY 2011 appropriations bill. Despite this extensive debate, H.R. 1--which contained tens of billions of dollars in cuts, including the elimination of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Stateside program--was never adopted by the Senate. Instead, after three temporary funding measures, Congress passed a FY 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) that included only modest across-the-board funding reductions.

However, not long after the FY 2011 CR resolved the federal budget debate through September 30, 2011, attention in Washington turned to the need to raise the federal debt ceiling--a historically noncontroversial procedure that allows the Administration to borrow money in order to provide funding approved by Congress. While House and Senate leadership negotiated a deficit reduction package, many members of Congress associated with the tea party movement--most prominently Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)--argued that the debt ceiling should not be raised at all and vowed to oppose any compromise. This steadfast resistance to a bipartisan deal helped strengthen Republican demands for spending cuts. In the end, despite arguing that raising the debt ceiling shouldn't be tied to deficit reduction measures, President Obama and Congressional Democrats reached an agreement with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling that would produce more than $2 trillion in spending cuts.

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For some politicians who have long fought to reduce or eliminate federal funding for parks and recreation, the tea party's support for cutting federal spending has reinvigorated ongoing efforts to stop federal support for parks. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has led many unsuccessful efforts over his career in the Senate to eliminate the Transportation Enhancements (TE) set-aside, which ensures that states utilize a small portion of their federal highway funding for bike and pedestrian paths and trails, historic preservation, and other non-traditional activities. …