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The irony of the Tea Party victory: More ‘insider’ influence

According to the Campaign Finance Institute, established and newly formed non-party groups spent nearly $280 million in congressional campaigns in 2010.  Roughly two-thirds of that money went to support Republican candidates; this disparity makes perfect sense when the out party is trying to come back in to power.  Campaign contributors give their money for a wide range of reasons and when they do so, they are exercising a form of free speech.  However, that does not mean their contributions are “free.” Make no mistake; campaign contributors will want their money back, in some way, shape, or form.

The Republicans regained control of the House and gained seats in the Senate by riding alongside the Tea Partiers, and agreeing to roll back federal programs, cut taxes, and reduce the $1.3 trillion federal deficit.   The problem with following through on these promises is that there are a lot of voters, small businesses, and corporations who depend on some type of federal program, grant, or subsidy.  Will John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) really put an end to crop subsidies, or make corporations pay a higher tax rate on overseas earnings? And what about all the free trade policies that have gutted domestic industries like textile manufacturing – is Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) going to lead the nation back to the era of protectionism?
The answer is no, and the explanation lies in the halls of Congress, and the corridors of K Street,  which will become once again clogged with lobbyists who work to maintain, protect, and expand all the benefits that their clients receive from the federal government.  The elections of 2010 mean that the economic downturn that has plagued the lobbying offices on K street for the past two years is about to come to an end.  The hundreds of Republicans who left their legislative jobs in 2006 and their colleagues who left the White House in 2008 have their feeder tube to the Hill wide open again, which means greater influence inside and outside Congress.  But the increase in lobbying will not be limited just to Republicans. The hundreds of newly out of work Democrats will need some where to go, and there will be office space waiting for them too.  Someone — actually lots of people — will have to work to maintain any benefits acquired under unified Democratic control, and that means shoring up the resolve of Senate Democrats, and the White House, to stand and fight for them.
The rhetorical battles that will be waged on the national stage, at press conferences, on cable TV, and Twitter will be just for show.  Well trained lobbyists will make sure that the real decisions will be made in private, and will most likely continue to benefit the most elite members of the economic and political class, who will in turn reward incumbents with a continuous flow of campaign money.
But maybe not.  Perhaps the crop of newly elected members of the House and Senate who affiliated with the Tea Party really meant it when they said they wanted to give the country back to the people.  Will they be able to resist the pressures exerted by Republican Party leaders and lobbyists on all sides to maintain at least some part of the status quo?  The perks of incumbency are big, comfortable, and addictive.  It will take all their resolve to walk in the other direction.

Wendy J. Schiller is an associate professor of political science at Brown University.

Tags Boehner John Boehner Mitch McConnell

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