Tax revolt a recipe for tea parties

Jenny Beth Martin remembers the day she became a protester.

Her husband's business had gone under, and the two were cleaning houses in Atlanta to stay afloat. That was when they heard about a tirade against President Obama's mortgage bailout scheme by a financial news analyst calling for a modern-day Boston Tea Party revolt.

"We had just lost our house and had ... moved into the rental house," says Martin, 38, whose husband Lee's temporary-employee firm had 5,000 workers before it went down in the recession.

"I didn't want other people paying for my mortgage, and I wanted to prevent that in other places," she says.

What started out as a handful of people blogging about their anger over federal spending — the bailouts, the $787 billion stimulus package and Obama's budget — has grown into scores of so-called tea parties across the country. The biggest demonstration so far drew 6,000 people in Cincinnati.

A nationwide protest in 500 cities and towns is scheduled for Wednesday, the deadline for filing federal income tax returns.

The goal is to pressure Congress and states to reject government spending as a way out of the recession and build an anti-spending coalition around regular taxpayers.

"The tea parties are a means, not an end," says lawyer Mark Meckler of Grass Valley, Calif.

Venting of frustrations

The events have largely been gatherings of people venting frustration over a variety of tax issues, carrying signs such as "Tar and feather Washington" and "Spread my work ethic, not my wealth."

Reuven Avi-Yonah, a tax historian at the University of Michigan, notes that the United States was born out of a tax revolt by British colonists, but little happened in the two centuries that followed until the California property-tax revolts of the 1970s.

"I don't know how much this represents popular sentiment," he says of today's tea parties. "I'm not sure that the majority of the middle class agrees or that this is going to be politically effective."

Where the tea-party protesters see irresponsible borrowers and politicians heedless of the growing federal budget deficit, others see downtrodden homeowners and public officials making tough choices.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, says concern over the deficit is justified, but "we need to have this budget bill ... to grow our economy."

The inspiration for the tea parties was an on-air rant Feb. 19 by Rick Santelli of CNBC, who complained that Obama's $75 billion bailout of mortgage defaulters "rewarded bad behavior."

As traders at the Chicago Board of Trade behind him cheered, Santelli said it was time for a new Tea Party, referring to the tax protest in 1773 by colonists who dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

The remarks spread quickly through e-mail and websites such as Facebook and YouTube, which has recorded more than a million views of the Santelli video clip. Organized parties soon popped up in Atlanta, Denver and St. Louis. Some attracted no more than a few dozen people. Others drew thousands.

Organizers say they were not pleased by former president George W. Bush's performance on spending, either, but what moved them from yelling at the TV to rallying in the streets was Obama's proposed $3.6 trillion budget, a package the Congressional Budget Office says would produce record-breaking deficits of $9.3 trillion over 10 years.

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