Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is not even 100 words long, yet it has been blamed for gridlock in Congress and for making it impossible for Republicans to make any constructive negotiations and compromises over the budget. Because of the importance of the pledge (which commits politicians to never raising income taxes) AEI hosted a debate between Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
The debate was on the topic of “Pledge or Wedge?” but it was not clear exactly what the debate was over. They did not frame the question as “does the Pledge reduce the size of government?” or “does the Pledge benefit the American people?” The two debaters thus focused on what they respectively liked and disliked about the pledge.
The debate covered a lot of ground that Norquist has clearly covered before. He effortlessly dismissed the question of whether he would accept a ratio of 100:1 spending cuts to tax increases by remarking “So you’re asking if I would rather have a Purple Unicorn or a Gold Unicorn?”
Norquist was clear: the pledge has been effective at getting Republicans to hold a hard line against tax increases and that the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress are committed to the principles of the pledge. This is true! Sure spending has not been brought far enough down, but now it’s clear that taxes are indeed off the table.
Douthat countered that when you look at the record, the pledge has done nothing to actually restrain the growth of government and it does not actually protect the best interests of the taxpayers. As he stated: “There’s this nagging problem that conservatives keep cutting taxes without cutting spending, and that spending has sort of blown up into a sort of world historical challenge facing the United States.”
But Douthat faced the challenge that Norquist has been highly effective in getting Republicans to commit to not raising taxes. Why would any conservative not like that?
Douthat hinted at an answer with a comment about the consequences of taxpayer pledges at the state level, noting what had happened in California which has restrictions written into its law on how it can raise its taxes: “California today is in a more dire position than the US was in the Clinton era when tax rates are higher then they are today.”
What happens if the Federal government becomes as restrictive on taxes as California is? First, the pledge makes it impossible for Republicans to negotiate for a fiscal consolidation that would be favorable to them. Douthat noted which fiscal consolidations actually worked: “The most success fiscal retrenchments, the ones that took and kept countries out of debt spirals, average 85% spending cuts to 15% tax increases. To me that sounds like a victory, to Grover that probably sounds like a sell-out.”
Second, the pledge might stick Republicans with an even worse outcome than a modest tax increase. It’s a fact of American political life that Democrats will sometimes win, and the pledge needs Republicans to have permanent political power to implement a budget with a 100:0 ratio on spending cuts to tax increases. This is extraordinarily unlikely. As Douthat reminded the audience, there are tax increases scheduled to go into effect in 2013 and Mitt Romney is not guaranteed to be the next President:
The goal of conservative public policy is not merely designing pledges that help Republicans win the next election, it is achieving the best interest of the American taxpayer in periods when Democrats are in power as well as Republicans, and in times of crisis as well as opportunity.
There were additional arguments Douthat did not make to Norquist which would have strengthened his argument. He did not say that the pledge nearly resulted in a failure to raise the debt ceiling which would have lead to a financial catastrophe. He did not point out that the pledge has lead to accelerated and automatic cuts to the defense budget which will have very real consequences for America’s foreign policy.
And most importantly, Douthat did not ask why Grover’s pledge and group have become the conscience for the entire Republican Party even though ATR is just a lobbying firm like any number of other ones in DC. (This question was broached from the audience in a round-about-way that asked about Grover’s lobbying against certain sales taxes but it was not framed explicitly.)
The question was not put to Grover: Why does your pledge get to decide what sort of deal GOP senators get to make and does it have any relevance to the problems they are trying to solve?