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Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform asks prospective Members of the House of Representatives to sign this pledge:
I, ____, pledge to the taxpayers of the ____ district of the state of ____, and to the American people that I will:
ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.
The vast majority of Republican officeholders take Norquist’s pledge, which, they say, shows their constituents that they are committed to smaller government. Instead, it encourages Americans to think primarily about their distaste for taxes even as they reject the need for spending cuts that affect their own families.
What began as a dream of delivering small government through low taxes transforms into a rallying cry for not having to pay the bills, the very opposite of fiscal responsibility.
Norquist’s grand strategic plan envisions reduced revenues eventually necessitating serious spending cuts, but his pledge does none of the rhetorical work necessary to bring this about. Though principled small-government visionaries of the recent past have recognized this flaw, abandoning their hopes of “starving the beast,” both the mainstream and the grass roots of the Republican Party have doubled down on their anti-tax mantra. In doing so, their rhetoric veers into the realm of fantasy, and we can only hope that they “face up to big government” as a reality that must be paid for soon.
By making just one party credible on one side of the fiscal equation, Norquist’s pledge creates a profoundly unsustainable political equilibrium, ending in fiscal ruin if unsupported by a rapidly growing economy (as the 1990s provided). The Republican Party becomes an engine of deficits, as the experience under President George W. Bush shows.
If voters really care about halting the growth of America’s debt, shouldn’t they ask for a different pledge? It would go something like this:
I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the ____ district of the state of ____, and to the American people, that I will:
Oppose any and all bills that would result in an increase in America’s debt burden, including insisting that cuts in marginal tax rates be matched with cuts in spending, elimination of tax expenditures, or compensating revenue increases of other forms.
If anti-tax voters are real deficit hawks (as many tea partyers claim to be), they ought to demand that prospective officeholders either take this pledge or refrain from taking Norquist’s. If they are unwilling to, but remain happy to accept Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, they fairly decisively reveal that they are not deficit hawks at all.
To be clear, I do not believe that elected representatives should be making pledges at all. I believe that a responsible (fiscally and otherwise) officeholder should reject both of these pledges — pledges are fundamentally grounded on a notion of corrupt and faithless representatives.
Ironically, voters’ distrust of their own elected representatives leads those representatives to conduct themselves in a less trustworthy manner, refusing to exercise real leadership whenever it would upset a faction of their constituents.
But if one insists on a pledge and demands real fiscal responsibility, the pledge should be the one proposed here rather than Norquist’s. Voters who are actually committed fiscal hawks must reject the destabilizing asymmetry inherent in Norquist’s pledge — and those who favor Norquist’s pledge must explain why and how they believe it is going to deliver balanced budgets in the future, despite the contrary experience of the last decade.
If our elected officials were to honor the pay-as-you-go pledge proposed here, our national debt would stabilize. No doubt that following this path to achieve a rapid narrowing of the federal deficit would be painful.
But more painful in the long run would be a continuation of the status quo: just enough bipartisan “compromise” to repeatedly worsen our fiscal trajectory, with Norquist-inspired reductions in revenues unmatched by comparable decreases in spending.
Pledges aside, if all politicians can do in coming years is make the long-term budget picture worse, it will be long past time for voters to adopt a far more heavy-handed approach to their leaders: Get new ones.
Phil Wallach is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.