Newsday/Christopher Pasatieri

Newsday/Christopher Pasatieri

There is an old saying in the national capital, which is unfortunately accurate, about rookie lawmakers who come to Washington to do good and stay to do well. Something like that is happening to the tea party movement lawmakers.

The tea party has its origins in noisy, belligerent opposition to big government and excessive and wasteful spending. Budget hawks have long identified the Essential Air Service program as among Uncle Sam's most wasteful and largely unnecessary spending.

It was a relic of the Carter administration, intended to buy time for small communities that lost air service due to airline deregulation to find alternatives. The service came close to dying a natural death in 2001 when its budget shrank to $50 million, but like so many programs in the ensuing years it grew and grew. In all, the Essential Air Service now costs taxpayers $193 million a year.

The subsidies can run hundreds of dollars for a one-way seat on many routes, but can reach $1,000 a ticket, sometimes for flights that average only three passengers a day. A member of the Scripps National Investigative Team in May was the lone passenger on a 300-mile flight from Ely, Nev., to Las Vegas at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $70,000.

Last year, House Republican leaders, determined to cut federal spending, persuaded lawmakers to eliminate the program in the Lower 48 states by 2013.

The tea party believes, or says it believes, in free enterprise; get the government off our backs, etc. According to the tea party, if there truly were a need that people would be willing to pay to address, private enterprise would step in and fill it.

Not so fast there, Adam Smith.

As The Associated Press reports, "Tea Party lawmakers from rural areas were among those fighting hardest to preserve taxpayer subsidies for airline flights into and out of small towns last year after senior Republicans tried to eliminate the oft-criticized program." Instead, the AP says, the GOP-run House Appropriations Committee this week approved a record $214 million in subsidies for the program -- an 11 percent increase.

Most of the tea party and tea party-backed legislators were elected in 2010. It seems they adapted to what they once derisively called "the culture of Washington" faster than most.

Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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