Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Blame the Tea Party for the national debt crisis?

August 25, 2011 by Louis Fisher


The struggle to raise the debt limit and the ongoing political battle over deficit reduction have unleashed angry attacks on President Obama, Congress, Democrats, and Republicans.  Probably at the top of the list is the Tea Party.

Tea Party rally banner (Flickr photo by JohnE777)

Writing in The New York Times earlier this month, columnist Joe Nocera began his op ed “Tea Party’s War on America”: “You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists.  It only encourages them.”  He said much of the country “has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.”  He later apologized for this overheated rhetoric.

No doubt the Tea Party played a significant role in the debt limit debate, but how did they gain their leverage?  The answer is the failure of the national government over a period of decades to recognize the magnitude of federal deficits and do something about them.  Instead of bringing them under control, the issue festered year after year while most national leaders chose to look the other way.  Rather than decide on responsible and timely action, no effective measures were taken.

The Ballooning Federal Debt

With a national debt now over $14 trillion, we might recall that three decades ago it stood at one trillion, a total accumulated from 1789 to 1981.  It reflected the cost of nearly two centuries of wars, economic downturns, and the Great Depression.  By the time President Reagan left office in 1989, his tax cuts and military buildup contributed to a tripling of the national debt, pushing it to three trillion.  Four years of President George H. W. Bush added another trillion.  Tax increases during the Clinton administration brought deficits under control and projected a series of surpluses.  However, deficits skyrocketed under George W. Bush because of two unpaid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, tax cuts, unchecked domestic spending, and the economic collapse of 2008.

Teachers Corner

What is the best approach to reducing the federal government's budget deficit? Read the speeches from President Obama, Republican leader Paul Ryan, and Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann and discuss which approach you most agree with.

President Obama could not be expected to fix the debt crisis quickly, especially in a depressed economy.  But he had an obligation to explain how deficits over the next decade could be brought under control.  His three budget messages acknowledged the scope of the problem, described deficits as “unsustainable,” and counseled that it was necessary to “live within our means.”  Yet his budgets allowed deficits and spending to climb, leading to the political crisis this summer.  The Tea Party capitalized on decades of irresponsibility in the nation’s capital.  What have elected officials learned now?  How could it take this long for a wake-up call?

Louis Fisher is scholar in residence with the Constitution Project, after spending four decades with the Library of Congress as Senior Specialist in Separation of Powers with Congressional Research Service and Specialist in Constitutional Law with the Law Library.  His most recent book is Defending Congress and the Constitution.  His articles, books, and congressional testimony are available at

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