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Ever since the Tea Party first emerged on the national scene as a "citizens protest" against health care reform, skeptics on the left have treated it as a stalking horse for the right. And why not? Surveys show that an overwhelmingly majority of Tea Party members are white, conservative, relatively affluent, and typically vote Republican. But apparently, when they attack "Big Government," some Tea Partiers have a lot more than in mind than simply repealing ObamaCare.
In fact, in recent weeks, there are signs of an emerging alliance between the Left and the Tea Party on at least one important federal spending issue that concerns both movements: the bloated US defense budget.
That’s right, stalwart progressive groups like the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and the Ralph Nader-founded Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) are now working in a de facto coalition with some 23 conservative groups, including Grover Norquist’s the Americans for Tax Reform, and the national Tea Party group FreedomWorks, to push for deep cuts in US defense spending.
The coalition has come together around the findings of President Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission, which included a call for $100 billion in defense cuts. And at least one prominent congressman, eight-term Texas Republican Kevin Brady, who marched on Washington, DC with the Tea Party last fall to win their support for his re-election, has already moved to incorporate the Commission’s recommendations into federal legislation.
Brady’s also proposing a 15% slash in defense procurement for the coming year, an unprecedented stance for such a long-time defense hawk. Brady’s also the ranking Republican on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for writing all tax legislation and bills affecting Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs. In other words, he’s no conservative maverick.
And Brady’s not alone. He’s joined by Tea Party conservative, Rep. John Campbell of California, who recently lambasted Pentagon chief Robert Gates’ attempt to head off the burgeoning anti-defense movement by proposing smaller Pentagon spending increases. During an appearance two weeks ago on the Fox Business Network program, "Bulls and Bears," Campbell said that "huge cuts," not a proposed slow down, were needed, adding that Congress should also consider a speedier US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a ban on earmarks that had turned defense spending into a "jobs" program. "There should be no sacred cows," he declared.
Brady and Campbell’s statements have put the GOP Senate and House leadership on the defensive, just as the earlier Tea Party push on congressional earmarks did. In interviews, House speaker Eric Cantor (R-VA) has conceded that serious defense spending cuts should be "discussed." But he’s refused to say how deep those cuts might go, and whether the party’s emerging deficit-reduction plan would include them. And like Mitch McConnell, the new GOP Senate Majoirity leader, he’s reaffirmed the GOP’s commitment to a "robust" defense policy.
Arguably, the new Tea party push on defense spending merely echoes long-standing progressive attacks on the Pentagon budget as the nation’s number one "entitlement" program. For example, a joint NTU/PIRG report released last October called for $600 billion cuts in defense spending – or six times the level proposed by the Obama Commission. The proposed cuts would be based largely on the scaling back or cancellation of outdated or unnecessarily costly weapons systems, like the V-22 Osprey aircraft, and the "right-sizing" of the American nuclear arsenal, as well as elimination of Homeland Security projects that past US government studies have identified as "wasteful."
But the NTU/PIRG report, entitled "Toward Common Ground," also proposes some surprising domestic spending cuts, apparently designed to build bridges with the Tea Party. For example, in addition to slashing defense, the report calls for a major reduction in HUD housing subsidies, the return of unspent monies from the 2009 TARP bank bail-outs, and a lowering of Medicare reimbursement rates to hospitals in high-cost regions.
In other words, there may be more to this alliance, politically, than first meets the eye.
Defense, in fact, may not be the only issue on which the left and the Tea Party can find common ground. Another is immigration, especially the impact of expanded interior enforcement programs on information security and citizen "privacy," a long-standing concern of civil libertarians that the Tea Party’s rise is destined to amplify further.
While not widely reported in the media, some local Tea Party groups who otherwise support cracking down on illegal immigration have quietly raised doubts about whether laws like Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 may go too far in targeting law-abiding citizens.
As currently written, the Arizona law, and other state laws modeled on it, could allow local police to arrest and jail anyone, including US citizens who lack personal identification, pending a police background check. Last July, federal district court judge Susan Bolton blocked key portions of the Arizona law that would appear to allow such a broad dragnet, including the possibility that those without identification could be jailed and charged with a state crime.
Long-time opponents of illegal immigration dismiss such concerns, but Tea Partiers suspicious of government "over-reach" don’t. They’re especially worried about the prospects for random and prolonged detentions of US citiizens, and the possibility those detained would have their names entered into federal databases and treated as possible "suspects" in the future.
But Arizona’s actually the least of Tea Party concerns. They’re far more alarmed about what some Senate Democrats and Republicans are proposing legislatively to prevent illegal immigrants who slip through the border from getting jobs. One is the proposal by Senator Chuck Schunmer (D-NY) for a tamper-proof Social Security card that all 250 million US residents would be required to purchase and use to verify their eligibility to work. Ever since Schumer, joined by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), first announced the sweeping card plan in early 2010, Tea Party groups, joined by traditional libertarians, have assailed the idea as a massive "invasion" of citizen privacy.
With characteristic hyperbole, some Tea Partiers have even compared it to Nazi and South African "pass" laws, warning of an impending takeover by "Big Brother."
If the issue hasn’t broken out into the open yet, that’s largely because the immigration enforcement debate has remained stuck on Arizona and the other big enforcement bugaboo – "border control". But that’s likely to change when the new Republican-controlled House begins addressing immigration later this year. House Judiciary committee chairman Lamar Smith of Kentucky has said he wants to shift the focus of debate to strategies for "protecting American jobs." Which means the very workplace verification systems that Tea Party groups — and many immigration advocates — find so objectionable will soon move to center stage.
Ironically, perhaps, Smith, like most Republicans, doesn’t back the Democrats’ draconian national ID plan. He’d rather see expanded use of a workplace verification scheme like "E-Verify," which is already mandatory for the federal government and its contractors. About a dozen states, including Arizona, have also required firms in their jurisdictions to register to use E-Verify, but there are no penalities for non-compliance, even though businesses could have their licenses permanently evoked if they’re caught employing illegal workers.
A national law on E-Verify would require all US employers to check a prospective employee’s name against a national database containing the names of immigrants with legal status. But several studies, including one by the US Government Accounting Office, the watchdog agency of the US Congress, have indicated that the E-Verify database, despite years of de-bugging, is still deeply flawed. It can correctly identify illegal immigrants just over half the time, and it still has a 3-5% "false positive" rate for persons with legal residency. That means with E-Verify, tens of thousands US citizens might be wrongly designated "illegal" and summarily denied employment.
Whether E-Verify turns out to be as intrusive in design as the national ID card – and as susceptible to Tea Party opposition – could depend on how it’s implemented. Some conservatives want E-Verify checks on everyone currently employed, while others are calling for the system to be phased in slowly, and only applied to new hires. The latter approach would leave much of the current illegal workforce immune to detection, unless they changed jobs. It would also limit the prospective damage to US citizens.
But either system will force businesses into a more pro-active role as immigration cops, adding to their operating costs, and exposing them to possible lawsuits. This is why business groups opposed employer sanctions in 1986, and because of their strenuous objections – plus concerns over racial profiling in hiring – Congress never really held businesses – especially small businesses – accountable for illegal hires.
But with criticism of employer sanctions now so widespread, and the public in full-scale uproar over "illegals," the bipartisan pressure to create a functioning workplace deterrent is stronger than ever.
Freedomworks, the same Tea Party group collaborating with NTU/PIRG in the anti-defense spending coalition, is the organization most likely to join progressives in a push-back on workplace enforcement. It’s already on record supporting a free market approach to immigration, and its worldview is staunchly libertarian. It’s co-founder, Dick Armey, the former GOP Speaker of the House, is certainly no nativist. While in Congress, he supported an economy-wide guest worker program as a way of "replacing" the illegal labor from Mexico that would be lost due to expanded enforcement. He also backs an expanded visa program for skilled foreign workers from Europe and Asia favored by the high-technology sector.
FreedomWorks’ openness to a possible progressive alliance was apparent last fall when the group announced it would not join a grassroots Tea Party campaign against the DREAM Act, a bill that would legalize about 2 million illegal immigrant youth who migrated to the US with their parents. The group’s stance raised the hackles of other national organizations like the Tea Party Patriots, who accused Armey of "selling out" to Big Business.
In fact, FreedowWorks routinely attacks Big Business for its role in the bank-bail-outs and the rescue of GM. It also savages pharmaceuticial companies for pushing Obamacare. If anything, Armey is an avid promoter and defender of small business, which in the past was allowed to opt-out of workplace enforcement, and which also feels especially vulnerable to the costs of healthcare reform. It’s not clear if Armey can win over over Tea Party groups to a push-back on "excessive" enforcement. And Armey may be forced to conciliate these groups, especially on "amnesty," if he doesn’t want to be completely ostracized – and possibly neutralized – by them.
All of this suggests that at least some national Tea Party groups are quite serious about the "anti-statist" grassroots ideology they espouse, and could make for useful, if somewhat strange, bedfellows, for the left. That’s already happening on defense spending. But tactical or even strategic alliances on immigration, information security and privacy, military interventionism, and even some environmental legsialtion – Rep. Campbell, for example, suppotts a moratorium on offshore oil drilling – may well be in reach – and should be pursued.
Of course, not all Tea Party groups are the same, and not all will be equally willing to work in formal coalition, or to tacitly lobby and conduct public education concurrently. But that’s all the more reason to work with those groups like FreedomWorks that are. And if peeling off one group widens the Tea Party movement’s internal divisions, so much the better.
One caveat, though: co-optation can go both ways. On immigration, the Tea Party may help blunt some draconian enforcement schemes, but raising its visibility and influence could also undermine support for legalization. Likewise, the Left needs to be careful not to add momentum to the Tea Party’s quest for much deeper cuts in domestic spending. And, of course, don’t expect Tea Party support for a "public option" on health care.
In the end, it’s going to be a dicey game – but that’s politics after all. And with the Tea Party so active, and engaged, and increasingly well-organized, nationally and at the grassroots, can the Left really afford not to play?
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at email@example.com