By Pete Riehm
Since the Tea Parties emerged, Democrats and a few Republicans have characterized them as lunatics and extremists. In the latest smear, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) charges Republican "dead beat debtors" cannot negotiate because they are hostage to the "cult fringe," better known as Tea Parties.
The pitched battle in Washington about enormous national debt and runaway spending invariably invokes a pious chorus calling for civility and compromise, especially when it appears the conservatives may win. Our elite elders lament the loss of congressional collegiality and pundits rush to explain the current coarseness.
Most will blame the media; here is but one example, "The Civility Crisis is Real" from David Eisner at the National Constitution Center. And of course, that hate-filled talk radio just fans the flames of discontent and dissension.
Has partisan politics over heated the debt debate? Is the media just dousing all discourse with kerosene for ratings?
There is perhaps some truth to that, but the Tea Parties are only bringing into stark relief what vote seeking politicians and status quo protecting bureaucrats wish to disavow. There are extreme differences in the liberal and conservative visions for America.
We have come to the painful point of irreconcilable differences. The people finally broke out the owner's manual for this great nation again and read it. Americans are shocked that our country is so far afield from the Constitution.
Some will just dismiss this as more partisanship, but it is well beyond that. The founders sought to preserve self-government by ensuring the federal government was specifically restrained and sufficiently laden with checks and balances to prevent any concentration of power.
However, the abuses of the Constitution are numerous. The Congress uses the commerce clause like a crow bar to pry into any area they please. Activist courts think nothing of writing legislation or directing agencies how to administer their objectives. The executive branch eschews congressional oversight and if they cannot get a law they impose regulation by fiat.
These persistent waves of abuse have eroded the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to barely discernible and disregarded edifices on a once genuine federal system. Since the country's inception, Americans have debated how sovereign power is best shared, but the incessant exponential growth of the federal government the past century has made the states captive to federal dictates and the people are realizing their fragile liberties are vanishing.
None of this is new, so why now have the Tea Parties begun to percolate with the debt debate as the flashpoint to boil over?
The short answer is all the above is political and philosophical wrangling, but the current economic malaise is hitting everyone's pocketbook. So, folks are paying attention. The size and scope of government makes your eyes glaze over; and tales of runaway spending are aggravating. But, the specter of unimaginable debt spinning out of control oozing into future generations is absolutely frightening.
Americans intuitively and traditionally know debt can fast become an insatiable master. Benjamin Franklin's words linger in the American psyche: "When you run in debt, you give to another power over your liberty."
Arguing Constitutionality of myriad issues may be difficult to grasp, but doubling the budget to spend trillions of dollars much of which we don't even have is plainly wrong to hardworking folks who are fiercely independent and proud to provide for their families. From 2001 to 2011, the federal budget more than doubled from $1.8 trillion to $3.8 trillion.
Can anybody show what we are getting this year for an additional $2 trillion in spending? And, about $1.6 trillion of that is borrowed! Average Americans are certain this does not add up and confirm their suspicions that no one in Washington really has any idea how much money they spend and waste.
The statists in Washington reject limited-government because they do not believe in self-government. Their elitist perspective is that folks smarter than us must run the nation and our lives. So, they need an ever expanding federal government to establish dominion over every aspect of American life. That is an extreme position.
Conversely, the founder's concept of a small central government with severely constrained federal power to allow the states and the people to govern themselves is an extreme position to the ruling political class.
These two extremes are easiest to comprehend by simply examining the size of government. Looking at spending and debt makes it a quantitative assessment as opposed to judging the merits of various Constitutional issues.
You can call the Tea Parties extremist or write off the debt debate as bitter partisanship, but that dismisses the crux of the conflict as mere squabbling. It is not. We have incompatible visions for America; they cannot coexist, so compromise is impossible.
The people may not fully understand socialism in a European style democracy or capitalism in a Constitutional republic, but they can measure the size of government by how much it spends and how much it takes. The current debt debate is but prelude to the epic battle of 2012 when Americans must decide to continue into huge government socialism or return to limited government in a Constitutional Republic.
(Pete Riehm is a retired U.S. Navy commander, unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Mobile County Commission and an official with the Common Sense Campaign. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org)