Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is the height of fiscal irresponsibility

Grover Norquist likes to boast that 41 Senators and a majority of Representatives have signed his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which unconditionally rejects any net reduction in tax credits, deductions, or rates unless matched dollar-for-dollar by some other tax reduction. Norquist has plenty of reason to gloat, but taxpayers should be livid. Adherence to this doctrinaire pledge would rule out anything remotely resembling a balanced approach to deficit reduction and instead force the dismantlement of the social contract of the last 80 years.

This anti-government agenda propagates two related falsehoods that preclude serious deficit reduction:  that tax cuts pay for themselves, and that only spending cuts can reduce the deficit. Some leaders in Congress are more than happy to push this agenda, despite evidence to the contrary. Take, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently claimed that the Bush-era tax cuts paid for themselves. A litany of former Bush administration economists soundly rejected this assertion, and McConnell’s perpetuation of this falsehood damages sensible discourse. Similarly, Norquist boldly claims that “the only time the deficit comes down is when you refuse to raise taxes and you rein in spending.” Contrary to this revisionist history, the only budget surpluses of the last 40 years resulted from tax increases enacted by President George H.W. Bush, followed by more tax increases enacted by President Bill Clinton.

Having taken revenue increases off the table, today’s conservatives are pushing massive spending cuts paired, of course, with sweeping tax cuts. The House Republican budget demonstrates an unwillingness to pay for public investments, services, and a safety net, especially for the vulnerable and poor: their budget slashes more than $2.2 trillion from health programs, eliminates guaranteed Medicare within a decade, halves federal Medicaid spending by 2030, and by repealing the expansion of coverage in the Affordable Care Act, would increase the number of non-elderly uninsured Americans by some 34 million by the end of this decade. But the accompanying tax policies reveal this is a matter of unwillingness, not inability, to protect the poor, disabled, and elderly.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the House Republican budget would reduce revenue by $2.9 trillion (ignoring elimination of unspecified tax preferences) on top of extending all current tax cuts at a cost of $4.6 trillion in lost revenue and an additional trillion in debt service over a decade. (Allowing any temporary tax cut to expire is considered a tax increase and a violation of Norquist’s Pledge.) Despite eviscerating the non-security discretionary budget, Medicaid, and other health and low-income programs, the House Republican budget would not even achieve budget balance until close to 2040, according to a long-term analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, despite assuming an unrealistically high level of revenue specified by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R.-Wisc.) staff.

Modern conservatism has strayed far from the party of President Reagan, who would have violated Norquist’s taxpayer protection pledge on numerous occasions. Tellingly, Reagan’s old advisors are outspokenly appalled by the anti-government movement. In April, David Stockman, a former Office of Management and Budget director under Reagan, offered TPM’s Brian Beutler the following criticism of the House Republican budget: “I think the biggest problem is revenues. It is simply unrealistic to say that raising revenue isn’t part of the solution. It’s a measure of how far off the deep end Republicans have gone with this religious catechism about taxes.”

Fortunately there are Senator’s such as Tom Coburn (R.-Ok.), who has recently begun sparring with Norquist over wasteful spending through the tax code, notably ethanol subsidies. When asked on Meet the Press whether supporting revenue-positive tax reform contradicted his Taxpayer Protection Pledge signature, Coburn as much as said that that our long-term fiscal challenges are too important to be held hostage by Norquist’s agenda or pledges. Senator Coburn—who is not running for reelection and so cannot be denounced as a heretic by a Tea Party challenger—is absolutely correct. Our fiscal challenges necessitate more revenue.

But as Norquist explained to Ezra Klein in a rare moment of forthrightness, the conservative agenda is “to reduce the size and scope of government spending, not to focus on the deficit.” Over a decade ago, he went further in saying “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Americans should take him at his word. Norquist has spearheaded conservatives’ true economic agenda: rolling back the New Deal and Great Society expansions of the federal government. They oppose anti-poverty programs protecting the less fortunate among us. They abhor risk-sharing social insurance, which they view as breeding dependency on government. We should not let them dismantle this foundation for the middle class in the guise of fiscal responsibility.

Any Member of Congress genuinely concerned with the deficit knows that revenue will have to increase; placing the entire burden on spending cuts is politically infeasible and the magnitude of those cuts would be too severe to be sustained. More revenue will require a break from current tax policies, not supply-side delusions of grandeur. Any viable, bi-partisan long-term deficit reduction plan will need to raise more revenue through tax reform and other new sources. For these reasons, the first step toward long-term deficit reduction must be jettisoning the Taxpayer Protection Pledge and anti-government zealots like Norquist.

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