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.

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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.”

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?

Another target for tea party trimming might be that bipartisan attempt at alchemy called “nation building.” Bill Clinton failed in Somalia. George W. Bush broke the bank in Iraq. Barack Obama is pouring American blood and treasure down the Afghan sinkhole.

Lining up at the lobbyists' trough

Unfortunately, our new members of Congress seem less concerned about policy change and more preoccupied with reducing debt, primarily their own. The Washington Post recently ran a disheartening story about how the new crop of anti-Washington freshmen have been lining up at the lobbyists’ trough, begging for money to help pay off their campaign debts.

Paying down the federal debt now appears secondary to milking the cash cows that put the tea party folks in the back pockets of special interests.

The problem is that every dollar that elected officials take from the vested interests dilutes the mandate of the electorate to “come out from among them, and be ye separate.”

Just days after being elected, tea party puppies discovered what every incumbent knows – that the most onerous duty of any member of Congress is raising money. “A congressman’s life is constant fundraising,” Mr. Weller told me. “They hate to beg, but it’s constant fundraising – breakfasts several times a week, receptions most evenings.”

You can buy a ticket for your new congressman’s debt-retirement dinner – priced anywhere from $250 to $5,000 a ticket.

A new congressman’s first priority is paying off last year’s election debt (often in the millions), then raising more money for 2012. It’s a crass process.

Top 10 political quotes of 2010

One former Senate staffer tells of hearing a Wall Street financier indiscreetly bragging, “Senators get bought and sold. We buy them all the time.” This same staffer said, “It doesn’t do any good to write your congressman. Money is the only way to get their attention – big money.”

To take on Washington, take on the special interests

The only encouraging aspect of today’s Washington is that at least now there are websites you can check to see who owns your representative.

One longtime Washington public-relations man, a Democrat, observed: “After the Supreme Court opened the floodgates removing restraints on campaign spending, corporations can now buy the whole Congress.”

Sadly, Washington’s vested interests had their hooks in these new members before they even came to Washington.

If voters really want to “take back Washington,” they’ll have to do more than punish the party in power every few years. They’ll have to find ways to keep well-heeled special interests from walking all over freshman legislators.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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