Defining Ideas

The GOP’s Tea Party Problem

Wednesday, November 4, 2015
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Barbara Kelley

Journalists and others have been having a field day commenting on the squabbling taking place within the Republican Party in Congress. Much of the strongest rebukes went to the members of the Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 members at odds with the party leadership. David Brooks of the New York Times called the leaders of the Freedom Caucus men of “jaw dropping incompetence” because they insisted on a more aggressive and activist legislative program.

Perhaps the angry rhetoric will end, or pause, when Paul Ryan assumes the Speakership, but it is unlikely. The conflict between the values championed by the Freedom Caucus and those promoted by the more moderate wing of the party will remain because it reflects fundamental differences in voter attitudes and beliefs. The Tea Party branch of the GOP wants more freedom, less regulation, lower taxes, and a decentralized federal government. The Republican establishment prioritizes finding areas of agreement with the Democrats that result in legislation. The problem of finding a Speaker to lead the House of Representatives raised divisions within the Republican caucus because members defended the interests they were elected to serve. 

I do not agree with many of the actions of the Freedom Caucus, even as I agree with their desire to repeal most of the Affordable Care Act, reduce government regulation that is stifling investment and economic growth, reduce tax rates, and begin to close the budget deficit. The Caucus’ political flaw is its refusal to accept that none of these aims can pass the Senate and reach President Obama.

The question the media does not ask—and that non-partisans do—is this: Why do these representatives act as they do? Surely the leaders of the Caucus are not “incompetent” and understand that the actions they favor would not become law. So why do they persist?

The members of the Freedom Caucus represent frustrated, angry constituents. In 2010, voters sent enough new representatives to Congress to give Republicans control of the House. That failed to stop the President, so in 2014 the voters gave Republicans control of both houses. The Republican majority in the House reached a share not seen since 1927. Although some reforms were made, the major Obama programs, like the unpopular Affordable Care Act remained. At the same time, wages did not increase much, and economic growth remained slow. Instead of reducing regulations, restoring freedom, and increasing economic growth, Congress did not prevent the administration from piling new regulations on top of old ones.

Surely one of the striking features of the 2016 presidential campaign is voter support for political outsiders like Donald Trump. The voters who sent the members of the Freedom Caucus to Congress are now joined by millions of others who want the status quo to change. The voters say they are tired of gridlock. They want a reason to believe that their future and their children’s future will be bright. This is the same yearning that sent the members of the Freedom Caucus to Washington. And it’s the yearning that is making those same constituents dissatisfied with their elected leaders. You promised reforms, they are telling their elected Congressmen, but we got very few. President Obama told us that we could keep our healthcare, if we chose. That was a lie. We sent Republicans to Congress to correct his error, but nothing changed.

The Affordable Care Act put millions of people into the healthcare system. The ACA did nothing to increase the number of primary care physicians, so the new customers mostly cannot find doctors. Price controls on payments to primary care doctors drive new doctors away from primary care. Many have huge debts, so they look for more rewarding places to practice medicine. There is also the shock that many young families face when they learn what health insurance costs are. No one told them that the ACA chose them as the group that subsidizes older people with costly treatment. The young opt out, so the system that was promoted as a way of reducing the uninsured fails in that task also. And those are just three of the many failures of Obamacare to live up to the promises President Obama made. A more basic problem is that many Americans do not want a government run medical system.                       

The infighting among House Republicans reflects differences in belief about the right way to run the country. The differences may be put aside, but they will not be permanently eliminated by a change in the party leadership. The conflict between the two branches of the party may seem intractable, but I believe there is a way forward.

The Constitution created a strong federal system of government. Powers not explicitly granted to the federal government are “reserved to the states and the people.” We have strayed far away from that federal system. It is time to make a U-turn. A system that restores responsibility to the states permits the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus voters to have less government while giving California teachers and environmentalists a more centralized system within their state.

Take Obamacare. A federal solution to the healthcare debate will give health insurance to those who want it while allowing those who do not want it an opportunity to opt out. Citizens can vote with their feet. A benefit for all is that competition by the states would bring new solutions that other states could adopt.

 Among the issues on which the public is divided, healthcare and education policies are near the top of the list. Why not restore to the states the power over these areas? We have done that with Medicaid, the program that provides medical services for the indigent. States can choose the scope of the programs that they support. The same should be true for the rest of medical care, for education, and for other areas of policy where public attitudes differ enough that Congress cannot reach a satisfactory compromise.

In a country as diverse as the United States, with its many religions and ethnic groups, there are many rules that some voters like and others detest. Why should all states require religious people who oppose gay marriage to service those marriages or close their shop? A uniform rule binding all of the citizenry creates the kind of resentment and opposition that the Freedom Caucus and the voters display.

One of the primary goals of our culture is diversity. Successful diversity in society should not mean that we all agree to quietly embrace a “progressive” agenda. Far better is a policy of that permits diverse ideas and policies to flourish as long as they do not harm third parties. The states can become laboratories where those ideas and policies are put to the test, revealing which ones ultimately work and which do not. That ideal starts by accepting a strong federal system.

The founders recognized, as we must, that some issues cannot be federalized. Defense against foreign enemies and transportation—like the interstate highway system—are two obvious examples of powers that belong to the national government. But expanding the opportunity for different solutions to our problems will lead to a less divided future and a more effective government.