07/23/2012 10:00 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

Hard Right -- or Hired Right?

It's increasingly difficult to explain the Tea Party's behavior by its nominal ideology. The core value it espouses -- a small federal government, with deference to the states -- is under dramatic assault from the Tea Party caucus of the Republican House this month. The House version of the five-year farm bill contains language which breathtakingly puts the federal Department of Agriculture on steroids, by giving it a monopoly on food safety standards, which have historically been a shared federal and state responsibility. Motivating this drive to centralize power in Washington is a fear by big livestock pork producers, who fear that states might establish safety or animal welfare standards for pigs as California has already done for poultry. But the House language isn't limited to animal welfare standards -- it simply sweeps away all state authority over food safety.

Nor does the Tea Party believe that states should be able to choose the best mix of electricity for their inhabitants. Delaware, for example, had entered into a program in which Bloom Energy, a hi-tech manufacturer of innovative fuel cells, agreed to build a factory in Delaware in exchange for the state agreeing to classify fuel cells as qualifying technologies under the state's Renewable Energy Standard. This kind of incentive to locate manufacturing facilities is standard, plain vanilla state economic development behavior -- George Bush and Rick Perry engaged in it when they were governors of Texas, and it was practically the hallmark of Haley Barbour's governorship in Mississippi -- including incentives for electric car and solar companies.

But now the Delaware Tea Party's legal arm, the Caesar Rodney Institute, is suing the state over the partnership with Bloom, claiming that the agreement is unconstitutional " economic protectionism." Since the Bloom cells actually burn any fuel, but mostly these days with gas so cheap are run on plain old geologic methane, this is actually a lawsuit against fossil fuel energy in Delaware -- it's just a cleaner and more reliable way to make electricity from natural gas.

In the food safety debate, advocates of federal preemption cloak their power grab by saying they are trying to protect the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution, the same clause that Republicans opposing President Obama's health care plan have been striving to chop down and limit. But they simultaneously oppose federal standards, saying it would make Washington too intrusive.

So why make Uncle Sam the sole protector of food safety? And why did the Tea Party sue Delaware? What happened to its fondness for the states' rights -- and the Tenth Amendment reserving to the states all of the powers not granted to the federal government?

The answer may lie in a third battle brewing with the Republican party. A group of conservative but not Tea Party Republicans -- former Congressman Bob Inglis, Bush Secretary of State George Schultz, as well as historically moderate voices like Sherry Boehlert, have come out and suggested that one ingredient in an overall tax reform package might be a reduction in other tax rates paid for by a tax on pollution -- carbon in particular. Now pollution or carbon taxes fit conservative economic orthodoxy very well -- they tax consumption, not savings; they improve, rather than distorting, markets; they are easy to administer and difficult to evade; and they don't discourage investment or entrepreneurship or hard work.

But even with conservative stalwarts like Arthur Laffer speaking out on their behalf -- on the grounds that all taxes are bad but some are worse -- the issue has become incendiary between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party, with the Tea Party and the House and Senate Republican leadership denouncing the very concept of pollution or carbon taxes as anathema.

Listen to the mainline journal of the right, National Review, blister the idea: "Disturbing reports are reaching us of a hitherto-secret meeting at the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday afternoon looking at the feasibility of persuading Congressional Republicans to back a "revenue neutral" carbon tax [...] Even if AEI was just providing the venue, one has to ask: What are they thinking?!"

Well, for starters, AEI may have been reading National Journal's founder, William L. Buckley, who was a staunch advocate of gasoline taxes high enough to cover all the costs of our oil addiction.

But William L. Buckley is so 20th century right -- not all the current version.

It's not hard to understand the source of Tea Party resistance to carbon taxes -- it's their paymasters -- Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel interests whose interests they are advancing. And the same applies to food safety -- big commodity agribusiness doesn't want higher state safety standards to get in the way of producing bacon or sausage as cheaply as possible. The commodity economy must be king. If Delaware helps fuel cells become a widely adopted commercial technology, fossil fuel usage will go down, because less coal or gas will be needed to generate a given amount of electricity because fuel cells are tremendously efficient.

So what we are seeing this summer from the Tea Party is the sad old story coming true -- he who pays the piper calls the tune, and monopoly energy and agribusiness are the paymasters behind the far right -- not Frederick Hayek and Ayn Rand.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."