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From bumper stickers to reality

The time for spirited campaign rhetoric and stinging one-liners is over.  The image makers have done their jobs, and with the Republican electoral hurricane as proof the Tea Party can rightfully claim to have made good on its threats to come to Washington in hopes of “taking back the government.”  However, it has been an interesting post-election week as the reality of Washington – both fiscally and politically—has begun to dawn on this decidedly uninitiated crop of fire breathing political novices storming into town.

As always, the major concerns of this writer pertain to the potential impact on the extremely fragile state of economic and human affairs in Mississippi as our chief benefactor – the Federal government – goes through potentially radical changes.  More specifically, it would be hard to miss the dire predictions of what lies ahead for programs funded by the State of Mississippi budget in light of a predicted $400-million to $600-million shortfall.  With hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts already having been logged, Mississippi agencies have labeled Gov. Haley Barbour’s request to prepare for 14 percent budget cuts the “doomsday scenario.”  Yet in light of the assumption that there will be no new sources of revenue of any kind, and with the economy chugging along very sluggishly, such an exercise as directed by the governor is not unwarranted.

And yet, don’t look now, but our other faithful source of sustaining revenue is squarely within the bulls eye of the “shrink government wherever you find it crowd.”  They come armed with a mandate from the people to do just that.  Two competing scenarios are now unfolding.

The more feisty Republicans, bolstered by the exuberant Tea Party types among them, are making bold claims of their next moves immediately upon taking their oaths of office. Those to be addressed first include eliminating Congressional “earmarks,” immediately cutting $100 billion from non-defense discretionary spending, repealing the Obama healthcare package, extending permanently all of the Bush tax cuts and making certain that no more stimulus money is allocated.  Others have zeroed in on specific programs calling for huge cuts or outright elimination of federal dollars for education, and some have even advocated the abolition of the United States Department of Education.

If all or a majority of this wish list were to come to pass where would Mississippi feel the pinch?  Keeping in mind the hole that we are in to begin with, get out your pencil and add a few items to that list.  First, as to banishing all earmarks, Sen. Thad Cochran made possible the funding of some 240 projects in his home state of Mississippi to the tune of $490 million.  Far from being luxuries, many of these were small town water and sewer systems, industrial park improvements, transportation upgrades and key research projects for our universities and the University Medical Center.  Very few of these projects could have been completed without these earmarked dollars.  Non-defense, discretionary spending comprises about 15 percent, or a little over $500 billion in the federal budget.  A cut of $100 billion would amount to a cut of 22 percent of the federal budget.  Mississippi is usually the top recipient of dollars in these federal programs, receiving about $1.95 from Washington for every $1.00 we send in taxes.  Our portion of this 22 percent cut would be felt.  As far as education is concerned, our local school budgets are already feeling the pinch in lost classroom teachers and teachers aids among other things.

There is a second scenario, however, that is also unfolding.  Indeed, there is another side to this coin. Traditions still count for something in Washington. It seems that older and wiser Republicans, while seemingly amused at their frisky new understudies, have already indicated the need to simmer down just a little. Many states and congressional districts represented by veteran Republicans have benefited greatly from federally funded projects (earmarks). In addition to Thad Cochran’s Mississippi, Republican Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Richard Shelby of Alabama have brought home many key projects benefiting the citizens of their states. Last week, even Tea Party stalwart and the newly-elected Republican junior senator of Kentucky, Rand Paul, modified somewhat his demand that earmarks be eliminated. Will the realities of Washington dampen the enthusiasm of the newly-elected tax and expenditure cutters, or will they refuse to get in line?

The answer to this question is to offer up a more ominous turn of events for the Republicans. Will impatient Tea Party voters who feel they are not getting their way threaten veteran Republicans themselves for behaving as part of the targeted establishment? South Carolina Tea Party Republican Sen. Jim Dement is already feeling the resistance of establishment Republicans as he attempts to lead the reform charge.  By the same token, veteran conservative Republican Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah is drawing threats from the Tea Party of opposition in 2012 for merely engaging in the time-honored Senate tradition of negotiating in good faith with Democrats. For the time being, Mississippians have cast their lot with the Republicans.  Perhaps they did not anticipate having to decide to embrace the national agenda as being driven by the Tea Party movement or to cling to what is good for Mississippi even when the two choices come into direct conflict. Next will be a look at the Democrats.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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