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Walter Rodgers

Will Congress’s tea party class go native in Washington?

As the 112th Congress gets under way, many of its new members are tea party freshmen who vowed to ‘take on’ Washington. But their early reliance on special-interest money to pay off campaign debts will make that hard to do.

By Walter Rodgers / January 3, 2011

The brand-new 112th Congress is bursting with freshman members – and bold rhetoric. Many in this 100-strong cohort (90 percent of whom are Republicans) were elected on promises to “take back Washington.” One, Ben Quayle (R) of Arizona, even promised to “knock the hell out of the place.”

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We’ll find out quickly if this class of freshmen changes Washington as much as Washington changes them.

“Going native” can be a bad thing in the nation’s capital if legislators become out of touch, too cozy with lobbyists, or even corrupt. But in the case of the class of 2010, some Beltway acculturation might be healthy if it helps these newcomers transition from implacable campaign rhetoric to the necessity of dealmaking that helps the American people.

IN PICTURES: Renegades going rogue

For one thing, these freshmen – nearly half of whom are tea partyers – will have to learn that compromise is not necessarily a sign of weakness, especially in a divided government with a Democratic president. Several of them drew lines in the sand over the national debt ceiling. But if enough of them actually vote “no” in a few months, the government would shut down. That would be spiteful and economically catastrophic, not constructive.

Can't govern by rejecting compromise

Tea party puppies need to discard the idea they came to Washington to reject compromise, because negotiation and compromise are essential to democratic government. Rigidity – refusal to compromise – is the stuff of corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Think Iran or Putin’s Russia.

The aggressive, adversarial chip on candidates’ shoulders last November must disappear.

Mark Weller, a successful Republican lawyer and lobbyist, noted, “As angry as the public is, you can’t be the party that just says ‘no.’ ”

If the new members of Congress are to accomplish anything, “they need to understand that competing in an election and working through the legislative process are wildly different arenas,” says Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. More than a few new House members won’t make the 2012 cut if they cannot find some balance and adapt.

Willing to cut Pentagon spending?

Perhaps most important, the tea party frosh must think the unthinkable. They cannot talk credibly about reducing the budget deficits if they are unwilling to do some serious trimming at the Pentagon. Check the numbers.

The United States spends $700 billion on defense each year. Why, when China spends only about $80 billion and Russia about $40 billion?


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