Much of the reaction to Tuesday’s vote not to fast-track some provisions of the Patriot Act has painted it as a victory for the Tea Party (e.g., here, here, here, and here). Tea Partiers, the story goes, were central to a group of Republicans bolting their party and preventing the measure from passing.
The problem is that the numbers don’t suggest the Tea Party had anything to do with it.
Pinning down the role of the Tea Party can be tricky, because the exact membership of the new “Tea Party Caucus” in the 112th Congress is not yet known, although we do know the membership in the 111th. Michelle Bachmann’s office says the new list will be released Feb. 17. But we can look at who was endorsed by a Tea Party organization or identified as a Tea Party candidate by a major news outlet in the 2010 midterms. And those members were not really less likely to support the Republican leadership on this vote than members who were not:
It’s hard to look at this as saying the Tea Party is in any way different from the rest of the Republican Party. A number of people have wisely noted that key Tea Party leaders like Bachmann didn’t vote against the bill, and that most Tea Party members joined them, based on the Tea Party Caucus list from the last Congress.
But looking at who campaigned as a Tea Party candidate, we see it’s not just that the Tea Party didn’t completely bolt. It’s that they did or didn’t bolt exactly as much the rest of the Republicans.
So what did happen? The same thing that has happened on this issue in the past, more or less. The Patriot Act has been controversial with libertarian-leaning Republicans from the beginning. And it’s been controversial among Democrats as well. The reauthorization vote in 2005, for example, was more of a party line vote than this one was, but 43 Democrats and 14 Republicans defected.
There is some change from 2005 to today. Democrats probably support the bill more because a Democrat is in the White House. And the comparatively slight increase in Republican opposition might be due to some change in the entire party’s attitude that is driven, in part, by the Tea Party, but probably also by the dust-up over body scanners a few months ago. But that’s not the same thing as the Tea Party leading a defection.