THAT SAME DAY, Toomey meets Jim Kail, the president of a tiny rural telecom company in western Pennsylvania. Kail doesn’t like a recent Federal Communications Commission decision—he says it benefits the telecom giants at the expense of little guys like him—and wants Toomey to intervene. Kail makes a sympathetic petitioner: He has rough working-man hands, he looks uncomfortable in his suit, and he’s brought his 20-something son with him to the meeting. Together, they’re the embodiment of heartland small business afflicted by the odious overregulation of Obama’s America. Or at least, that’s how they hope Toomey will see them.
But they’ve misjudged their mark. The senator listens courteously for a while, until he picks up on the fact that Kail’s entire business model is utterly dependent on a federally mandated 15.7 percent fee paid by phone service providers to the Universal Service Fund. The fund subsidizes companies like Kail’s that serve sparsely populated areas where the huge costs of building out telecom infrastructure aren’t justified by the small customer base. It’s a classic example of government interference in the marketplace, only Republicans generally don’t mind this $9 billion program, as it tends to benefit communities that vote GOP. When Kail lets it slip that 40 percent of his company’s revenue comes from this subsidy, Toomey’s eyebrows shoot up: “That much?” he says. Sensing trouble, Kail replies, “Look, I’m all for the free market. We don’t accept handouts.” No handouts beyond that 40 percent, he means.
Toomey chews on the end of his glasses. Then he says, “I really wonder whether we should be doing this in the first place.” Kail’s face crumples. Toomey goes on in that relentless, logical way of his: “To what extent should one group of Americans be forced to subsidize another group of Americans who chose to live in places where some services are expensive?”
This sort of consistency is one of the things that make Toomey an appealing figure. Back in the Bush days, when the rest of the GOP had no problem with deficits, Toomey was a lonely “no” vote on some of the costliest initiatives, like the Medicare prescription drug expansion. And unlike a lot of Republicans—who even now exempt the Department of Defense from their austerity plans—Toomey thinks the Pentagon needs a haircut too, and says so in the comprehensive 10-year federal spending plan he’s introduced two years running.
Toomey’s budget isn’t as well-known as Representative Paul Ryan’s, but it’s not as divisive, either, in that it leaves Medicare and Social Security (for now, at least) largely untouched in a nod to the current political reality.
But that same budget—which purports to balance the books within eight years—also shows the limits of Toomey’s appeal to those less convinced than he is that unfettered markets and lower taxes are the answers to America’s problems. It would knock out $2.7 trillion in federal health-care spending, whack welfare by $745 billion, and reduce discretionary spending to 2006 levels (and keep it there for the next eight years). All, of course, while cutting corporate taxes, preserving the much-debated Bush tax cuts, and lowering personal income taxes another 20 percent across the board.
In other words, as even-keeled as Toomey’s tone may be, his agenda remains extraordinarily conservative by historical standards. The fact that despite this, Democrats increasingly see him as someone they can do business with tells us first that Toomey is very, very good. But more than that, it shows just how effective the Tea Party has been in moving the boundaries of the national conversation in the years since President Obama’s election. Toomey may not have budged much, but his party sure has. Remarkably, in today’s GOP, Pat Toomey is the moderate.