The Tea Party and Big Spending on War

Largely due to the recently passed health-care reform bill (aka the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010) that has a massive $940 billion price tag over ten years, the folks in the Tea Party movement have been in the news a lot lately.  The Tea Party isn’t a formal political party or organization, but more a loose conglomeration of groups such as:

What these groups and others share in common is an opposition to big government and big government spending, along with the taxes needed to finance such spending.  [As an aside, the Tea Party movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party, which was a direct act of protest by British colonists who believed the Tea Act violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives.  It’s worth noting, however, that the taxation that the Tea Party opposes is not without representation – Tea Party activists may not like the taxes, but they are enacted by representatives chosen in elections where Tea Partiers were allowed to vote.]  For example, from the Tea Party Patriots website:

  • Fiscal Responsibility:  Fiscal Responsibility by government honors and respects the freedom of the individual to spend the money that is the fruit of their own labor.  A constitutionally limited government, designed to protect the blessings of liberty, must be fiscally responsible or it must subject its citizenry to high levels of taxation that unjustly restrict the liberty our Constitution was designed to protect.  Such runaway deficit spending as we now see in Washington D.C. compels us to take action as the increasing national debt is a grave threat to our national sovereignty and the personal and economic liberty of future generations.
  • Constitutionally Limited Government:  We, the members of The Tea Party Patriots, are inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land. We believe that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent.  Like the founders, we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution.  As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.

Not surprisingly, the tea partyers have directed their ire at President Obama’s and the Democratically-controlled Congress’s proclivity for excessive domestic spending.  Although it’s not clear how they feel about farm subsidies which cost $10 to $30 billion a year.  Or earmark spending – according to Citizens Against Government Waste, in fiscal year 2009 there were 9,129 earmarks worth $16.5 billion.  At least they seem to be against corporate bailouts … now. (It’s hard to remember a groundswell of those who fit the Tea Party demographic – Republicans or Republican-leaners who voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election – who were as vocal about bailing out Wall Street and Detroit automakers when George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office.)  And while the Tea Party is clearly anti-government funded/run health care, it’s not entirely clear where they stand on Medicare and Medicaid – although the idea of "Keep The Guvmint Out Of My Medicare" is amusing. 

And Tea Party-goers have been largely silent about spending for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To begin, even though the various Tea Party groups pay lip service to "Constitutionally limited government" and copies of the Constitution are often handed out at Tea Party rallies, they seem to have forgotten (or never read) Article 1, Section 8 that gives Congress the power to declare war.  Otherwise, they would at least bother to point out that both Afghanistan and Iraq are unconstitutional (as has been every U.S. military intervention overseas since World War 2).

Constitutionality aside, the cost of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly trivial.  The National Priorities Project’s Cost of War counter is currently (as this is written) at $987 billion-plus for both wars (remember when former White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey opined that the Iraq conflict would cost $100 billion to $200 billion and then Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld later called his estimate "baloney"?)  According to the National Priorities Project, "to date [fiscal year 2010] $1.05 trillion dollars have been allocated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimate that the total cost of both wars will be $3 trillion.

You would think these kind of numbers would grab the Tea Party’s attention.  If the prospect of $940 billion over ten years for health care concerns them, the $680 billion in FY 2010 for the Department of Defense (the FY2011 request is $708 billion) would also seem to warrant some concern on their part.

Apparently not.  So it’s hard to take the Tea Party’s mantra of "fiscal responsibility" seriously.  Although the Tea Party has its roots in Ron Paul‘s revolution, they forgot the part about a non-interventionist foreign policy (full disclosure: I was a foreign policy advisor to Dr. Paul during his 2008 presidential run), which is part and parcel of a constitutionally limited government and fiscal responsibility.

Unfortunately – especially with Sarah Palin seemingly now a darling of the Tea Party crowd (she was the keynote speaker at the Tea Party Nation’s national convention in Nashville, TN, in February and was a headliner for the Tea Party Express stop in Boston, MA on April 14th) – it seems the tea the Tea Party has been drinking is just Republican Kool Aid.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.